Rambles in Shambles
Monday, June 23, 2008
The day Jharna came in, it was raining – like a small waterfall had positioned itself directly over the grey veranda. She stood scared in the doorway, a young child of about thirteen. Ram later found she was nineteen. Childhood malnutrition ensured she looked half her age. She was short, dark, had small hands, small fingers, small toes – everything in proportion but for her large, curious, kohl-lined eyes. She looked blank and scared at the same time, and Ram later got to understand that was how she looked – constantly, consistently. She didn’t say anything to him when he looked up from his newspaper and lifted his bifocals to ask her what she wanted. She just said, “Jharna”.
“What do you want?” Ram asked.
“Jharna”, she said, and pointed to herself.
Tulsi walked in at that moment, before he waved her off as an insane urchin, and the girl repeated her name. Thankfully, Tulsi knew what to do with her.
“You’re sent by Mrs. Mukherjee, right?” Tulsi asked, “See, you have to do the washing, utensils, cooking, sweeping, mopping, watering plants and all that. Not much work, it’s just the two of us here. But no cutting corners, ok? Come, I’ll show you your room.”
Jharna was to work as a maid for them. They had been without a maid for nearly a month now, since the last one disappeared. Tulsi smiled at Jharna and asked her to come in. Jharna stared her stare, gulped, and went in.
Ram just sat looking at his newspaper and smiled. Tulsi had this thing for housemaids. She was so sweet in the initial days that she found it difficult to keep up the affection. Soon she’d tire of this one too, and then start finding faults. The girl would take it for a while, till she got accused of some petty crime she didn’t commit, or of trying to poison them, and then leave for her village or brother’s place or the next house she’d work in. Things followed a routine in this house. He wondered how many houses Jharna had worked in already, and how many she’d work in after this on her never-ending journey through thankless houses. He wished she was older. She seemed too young to take the full brunt of Tulsi.
The last one, Shanta, had been forced to leave the same way. Tulsi was missing her ear-ring, and naturally, she accused Shanta of stealing it. She blasted her with all the irritation that was bottled up inside her niceness, of windows not opened on time and vases not dusted and a lot of other things that didn’t make sense to the poor old woman. She packed her things that afternoon and left. The ear-ring was found the next day with Tulsi’s clothes in the bathroom.
Accumulated dirty utensils clanged in the kitchen. The tap burst into flow. Soon the gas stove clicked into flame, and steam whistled through the pressure cooker. Ram slipped into his afternoon daze. His spectacles slipped from nose and hung by their thread on his vest. Through half-closed eyes he saw Jharna come in to sweep the veranda, and then to mop it. She moved quickly and worked well. Her sari was hitched up and her calves were surprisingly muscular. She kept her eyes on the floor and Ram looked at her hips swinging across the shiny mopped floor. A sudden gust of wind caught the newspaper and it crackled across the veranda. Jharna looked at him suddenly and he squeezed his eyes shut, pretending to sleep.
On the back of his eyelids, he could still see sharp prints of Jharna suddenly looking at him. Her eyes were full of life, and something he couldn’t place. Something like fire. Her face was small and her skin was stretched taut over her bony face, and her eyes bulged out slightly. She wasn’t pretty, but there was something to her. He heard her lift up the old newspapers from the table in front of him and wipe the table. The papers rustled into ordered folds. A glass clicked as it was picked up. Plastic bangles clinked on her arms. Her arm brushed against his knee. He still pretended to sleep. Then there was silence. Her work was done.
It was still raining outside. The rain was a little heavy, considering the season. Ram smiled as he felt his eyes grow heavy and the back of his eyelids grew dark.
Jharna, in Bengali, means waterfall.
The next time Ram saw Jharna was when Tulsi woke him up for lunch. He quickly got up and adjusted his dhoti. He put on his spectacles and the room loomed into view. Jharna was standing beside the doorpost, staring at him blankly like she did. He blushed slightly and averted his eyes. He and Tulsi moved in for lunch, while Jharna sat on the veranda, looking at the road.
The food was good.
As usual, Tulsi was quite taken in by the new maid. She always liked them on the first day. The food perhaps tasted nice because it was a break from Tulsi’s insipid cooking, Ram thought. He gulped in the rice and fish curry. In this house one was never sure when the next good meal was happening. As usual, he finished before Tulsi. He looked at her noisily slurping her rice. Her fat arms bulged where her sleeves ended. Her stomach swelled where her blouse ended. A little curry dribbled down the side of her mouth. Ram took off his spectacles. Sometimes he felt better without his spectacles. He patted his stomach. He had a small paunch. He straightened his back and sucked in his stomach. Now it was almost flat. He wondered how ugly he must look to someone who saw him for the first time.
When he returned to the veranda Jharna was not there. He looked around, then on the road, but he couldn’t see her. He did not want to ask Tulsi. He sat down again on his chair and pulled a newspaper on his lap. This newspaper was three days old. He did not feel like reading it. Then he heard the noises of utensils being washed again. Jharna was at work again. She must have sneaked past them while they ate. A fly squirmed on the table in a drop of water, like a child learning to swim. It wriggled out slowly, sat still for a while to catch breath, and then walked around, leaving tiny footprints on the table. The rain had reduced to a trickle. He rolled up his newspaper and tried swatting the fly. It flew off and landed on his arm. Another swing and it flew off to the railing. A vegetable vendor passed by, shouting at the top of his voice. In the noisy streets of Calcutta, no vendors had logos, or slogans or mascots. It was just their voice, inflexion and tone that branded them as who they were – new or old, good or bad, Bengali or Non-Bengali.
Ram wondered if it was alright being what he was. He was nearly seventy now, and his wife had been…well not exactly a good wife but a decent one. More importantly, she had stuck with him with the customary cold faithfulness of a traditional wife. He still looked at women, and as time went by, he found himself looking at younger women. What was reassuring was that he did not feel the surge of warmth in his loins anymore when he saw women, but something quite different that he couldn’t place. At times he even felt fatherly towards them, and at times he wondered what it might have been like to be younger, and what he would have felt then. The biggest relief was that no one ever caught him looking, and maybe at his age he was excused or – he didn’t like the word – discounted, more easily. He saw the heavily made-up woman in the house in front sometimes, when she came home to spend the weekend. Her husband was in the navy before he retired. She looked repulsive. He had literally seen her grow up, and he knew she looked much better when she was younger. He saw the young girls on their way back from college, sneaking looks at young men waiting in balconies. He saw men glancing up at women drying their hair in balconies.
There was a time when he was quite a womaniser. Now that seemed like another planet, another person, another lifetime. That was way back, and he fell in love every alternate year. Ram remembered those times but now he wasn’t sure if he remembered them right. When he looked at himself in the mirror, he was always surprised to see himself. The longest affair he had lasted for two years, and that was his first. He still remembered Juhi, with her unkempt hair and yes, large eyes again. That relationship taught him everything. It was perfect except for the fact that it was his first, and that there was too much hope in his heart. Maybe the next time is better. And so it went till one day he lost all romantic hopes after a bad breakup, and Tulsi happened at the same time, out of an old uncle whom his father worshipped. Ram said yes even before he looked at her, and of-course there was no question of her having an opinion. He had looked at Tulsi as Nirvana, as an escape from the constant painful cycle of falling in and out of love. Now it surprised him how their roles had changed. From a submissive piece of furniture in the house she had grown to master its entire administration. He had come, from his brash bombastic days to a frail old shadow of himself. And he had come to depend on her.
Tulsi was initially wide-eyed and scared. And Ram felt like her gallant saviour. She was so unsure of herself, and scared-to-death of her mother-in-law, that Ram often had to take sides. He would coax out the fights of the day, the subtle taunts of the day, and go and fight with his mother. But one day Tulsi asked him to stop doing that. She said she would handle it her own way – with that gleam in her eyes he imagined people who poison someone’s tea had – and asked him not to complicate his life anymore. Life changed a lot that day.
Ram woke up from his daydream and was about to grunt a “No” when he saw it was Jharna. She stood holding a corner of the curtain, wide innocent eyes, too much kohl and mouth open. He removed his spectacles. This won’t do. He had caught himself looking at her with too much interest since the morning.
“Tea?” she asked again, and he realised his entire conversation with her had been one-way so far, and made up entirely of one-word-sentences. He nodded. She vanished. He should have spoken to her. How must it be like for her, working for strangers who might often forget her name, who did not know where she came from and where she went. He decided to wait for tea.
It came soon. She must have already made the tea and then just asked him. Or maybe she had made it for Tulsi who usually woke up at this time from her siesta, and an extra cup for herself. Maybe she wasn’t expecting him to say yes. Maybe he was having tea meant for her. Maybe he was just thinking too much about her because she was the only new thing in his life. Jharna put the tea on the table and left. Ram whispered “Thank You” but what came out of his mouth was a hoarse whisper. He cleared his throat and said thanks again. Jharna was already in and didn’t hear. Anyway, she worked for food and a place to stay and a little money; not for thanks.
The next day, Ram tried really hard not looking at Jharna. She had lasted two days and Tulsi was still happy. She wasn’t gushing anymore but she still seemed fine with Jharna. It seemed Jharna was very good at massages, and Tulsi got one done both afternoons before her afternoon sleep session. Tulsi said she was glad Ram was at home, and awake in the afternoons. Otherwise these maids have a habit of giving you a very good massage, ensuring that you sleep well, and making off with valuables. Ram reminded her that she had found everything in the house that she had accused the earlier maids of stealing. Tulsi told him one must still be careful and ‘not tempt’ them still. Ram did not tell her that he actually slept most of the afternoon on his chair in the veranda.
There was little in the house that could tempt anyone, actually. There was old furniture that was of dubious value and immense weight. There was an old clock that just had sentimental value. Most of the jewellery was in lockers, or was sold off, or was gifted to their daughter. Some things got stolen, but none of the housemaids ever stole anything of value. One stole chapattis. One broke a vase and vanished before one could scold her. Another one took too many leaves on flimsy excuses. One took off with the washer-man’s son the day after her first salary and a little advance was given to her, perfect timing for love. That one was a coquette. Her walk was something, and her clothes were never really in place. She was loud and she stole lipsticks sometimes. Actually, if one thought about it, she was the exact opposite of Jharna. Ram liked them both.
Jharna never had a hair out of place. Her saree was wrapped tightly around her thin frame and Ram never saw her even looking at the make-up kit. She just picked it up and placed it back when she cleaned the dressing table, just as she picked up his newspapers from the veranda table. Ram wondered if Jharna cared about anything but for her job. He wondered if he died one day on the veranda in the afternoon, if she would pick up his limbs with the same lack of emotion, mop under them and place them back. He wondered if she cared more for him than perhaps for a plant in the garden that had to be watered once a day. But there was something endearing about her. Relationships did not have to be reciprocal.
The next day Tulsi went to the market for Pujo shopping. The Durga Puja was an occasion to remember forgotten family, discover forgotten markets and buy gifts from the markets for family. It was a ritual. By now, Tulsi knew their daughter did not care for any of their gifts. They had so often seen their maid or her children wearing their gifts. Still, it was one of those things that had to be done. ‘Our duty has to be done’, Tulsi always said.
When Ram woke up on the veranda in the afternoon, the house was silent. Jharna was sitting on the doorstep and looking out, silently. A soft breeze was blowing a tendril of oiled hair across her forehead. In a while, when Ram was sure he wasn’t being observed, he looked at her again. A soft, indefinable, tender emotion swept over him.
Jharna was not really pretty, but from that angle, and with that tendril playing across her forehead, she looked beautiful. Her eyes were half-closed and dreamy. Her mouth was open and she stared into the space between their house and the one across the road. She looked like some poetry those Europeans used to write about country maidens. Ram checked to see if she was actually looking at something. Then he checked if someone was around. No, the street was asleep. Maybe Jharna was asleep too, just that her eyes were open.
He wanted to see her closer. Maybe if he crept up to her softly, she’ll not notice. It was about ten steps to her. His slippers were nearby. No, he’ll not worry about the slippers. He gathered his dhoti and leaned forward. He did not know why his heart was beating that fast. He got up slowly. He had to let go of the chair, slowly reducing pressure. The chair creaked if one got off suddenly. Everything was fine. Jharna still sat gazing into nothing, the breeze still blew and the tendril still bounced around on her forehead. She had the clearest skin, and he had never noticed it before. He took a step towards her and then had this irresistible urge to clear his throat. He gulped. He was about to take another step when his empty glass brushed against his dhoti and toppled with an ear-piercing clatter.
Jharna jumped up, startled, and with an automatic wave of her fingers, put the errant tendril behind her ear. They stood looking at each other across the veranda. Ram was breathing heavily. He cleared his throat, gulped again, reached for water, realized the glass had fallen down, and finally sat down. Jharna still stared blankly. She went in. Did she know? She came back with a glass of water and picked up the empty steel glass. Ram kept sitting. He was sure his face was red. His ears burned. She stood while he drank the water, and he felt her large eyes boring large holes in him. When he looked at her again, he thought he saw the faintest of smile on her face. No, it wasn’t a smile. But her face was so beautiful. She picked up the glass he just finished and lifted her eyebrows in an unsaid question, “More?” Ram shook his head. She slipped one glass into another and went inside to keep them back. She came with another glass of water covered with a saucer. She kept that on the table and stood there, for a long, heavy, silent time.
Ram did not know what she was trying to ask, but he looked away. If he kept looking at her he might say something he did not want to. Jharna sat down on the floor beside his foot. He felt her fingers on his calf. Her hand was warm, and the sensation was extremely heady. He felt warmth flow into his thin legs, and though he had a mind to refuse, he couldn’t. Jharna was kneading his lower calf now. He closed his eyes and leaned back.
He felt flesh fold against palms, veins stretch against fingers and blood flow into his feet as if it had not flowed there for years now. She held his heel and pressed softly. Her other hand moved to his left calf. Ram almost groaned. He imagined what it might be like to touch her hair while she sat there. He opened his eyes.
Jharna was looking into space, with the same non-expression on her face. She felt nothing.
A heavy hand was shaking him awake. It was evening. He saw Tulsi’s frame shaking through half-closed eyes. He mumbled something. Tulsi went into the garden to complain about the mango sapling being watered too much. Ram let the scene float out of focus again and dim. Tulsi was shaking him again. Why could he not sleep? Tulsi was shouting something about it being evening, and people lighting lamps in their homes, and it being ‘not good’ to sleep at this hour and so on. He rubbed his eyes and sat up. He had not slept like this in days. He couldn’t see Jharna, but she must be around if Tulsi was shouting about the mango sapling. He stood up and stretched. His back ached, but his feet felt like new. God bless the girl.
He tried remembering what it was like. It was a strange gush of mixed feelings. He just remembered that last look he had of her fingers – thin and strong, and then her face. Her face was so angelic, so innocent that he felt like her father for a while. Then he felt like hugging her. His heart was warm with the memory. Old age is a confused time. Different parts of the body grow old at different rates.
He heard Tulsi shouting at him now, asking him to come in to have the dinner that was getting cold, but somehow he didn’t feel like hurrying. He was thinking about the moment in the afternoon. He missed the moment and the tendril now. He wished he could go back to the afternoon when everything was so wonderful. Tulsi shouted again. It was like someone shouting to him across a dense mist, and he was happy where he was. He breathed in the evening air and felt his chest ache a little. Jharna was nowhere. She might be on the dinner table, setting up dishes. He smiled to himself, then forced himself to wipe the smile off, and then walked in slowly.
Ram did not get another massage for another month. Tulsi was forever at home, and she assumed the afternoon maalish slot was for her. Tulsi stopped speaking about Jharna. This could be good or bad. Maybe it was that inflexion point where the graph dipped, or maybe Tulsi had adopted her as part of her world, just like furniture, or Ram, or the Mango tree. In this house, Tulsi’s opinion really mattered. Till the time Ram was working, he remembered having a say. Long before that, he was the master. When Tulsi came in, she did not even raise an eye. Rams’s mother and Ram would handle the house and Tulsi would largely nod and stare expressionless at the floor. There were some common points between that and Jharna’s expression now. Things slowly came in her control, some by sly connivance, some by careful scheming, and most by default when his mother died. Then the house got repainted, the garden got its present shape, the old scooter got sold off and Ram realised too late that he was too incapable to take charge, too confused to take decisions and too old to get another wife. Tulsi also realised that, maybe much before he did.
A lot of things improved in the house, Ram had to admit. What reduced was love. Or maybe he wasn’t sure. Maybe that was the way things are supposed to go as you grow old. Maybe you just get so used to each other that you stop feeling for the other person. Maybe he will also realise he has tons of love for Tulsi once she’s not there. Anyhow, Tulsi was ten years younger. Chances were high that she would outlast him. Maybe she would also feel a loss when he wasn’t there.
Ram sometimes felt Tulsi hated him. Sometimes she would just make life tough for him for no reason. She would also overturn his decisions just to show she ruled. Ram felt helpless in the hands of the person he married, and he had thought at that point long back that she would be the obedient servant. He was sure that if he had a son and he brought home a wife, Tulsi would make the wife’s life hell, till she left just like the numerous maidservants. Their daughter did not have a problem with Tulsi. She was hardly at home while she was unmarried, and then rarely came home after marriage. She was pretty much like Tulsi herself, Ram thought. Now, with bulging arms and a huge behind, she had started looking like Tulsi much earlier than Tulsi looked like that. He sometimes wished his daughter was more like him. He had always been thin. He patted his small paunch.
Jharna was probably the daughter he wished for. But no, he knew practically nothing about Jharna other than the fact that she cooked well, gave an awesome massage, cleaned the house reasonably well, talked in single words and looked beautiful on one afternoon from one angle; and that she had not spoken to him even in those single words for almost ten days now. At other times, Jharna reminded him of some long-lost love that now he wasn’t sure actually happened. Juhi was a little like her, or maybe the memory of Juhi that Ram had looked like Jharna. He did not know where Juhi was and often wondered about her. He hoped she was well, if she was alive. But he sometimes also wished Juhi was unhappy and missed him. Happy people don’t miss anyone.
The Durga Puja time was full of action. The house was cleaned from corner to corner, edge to edge, almost as if the house was dismantled and put together again. The gate was re-painted and some old clothes were gifted to Jharna. She accepted them without a smile and continued her back-breaking work. Sometimes, Ram felt Tulsi was pushing her just to see when she’ll break. Jharna did not even complain. She worked as long as she could, and stood silently when she was scolded for nothing, ate in silence sitting on the kitchen floor and if she did have time, sat on the doorstep looking into space. Ram shared that space with her, but he did not have the same surge of feelings he had that time. Maybe now they were used to each other being there, staring and half-sleeping in the same still air. One afternoon Tulsi went shopping again, but Ram and Jharna just sat in their spots. Nothing happened. Jharna did not propose a massage and Ram did not ask for one.
That actually happened the day he slipped in the bathroom. Ram was getting out of his bath and he might have pulled at the towel too hard. The rod that served as the towel-rack came off the wall and he slipped, the rod hitting him smack on the forehead. He fell with a loud thud, hitting his back against the metal bucket. He lay quiet, breathing hard, for he was suddenly scared of annoying Tulsi. But then he had to call out since he couldn’t get up. Tulsi saw him and did the most natural thing. She shrieked and then started shouting at him for slipping and breaking the towel-rod. Then she called for Jharna. Ram was only wearing the towel that caused the fall. Ram was embarrassed and he was sure he was red. His ears felt warm and for no reason, he felt a small tear escape his eye. He was gasping and actually wanted to cry out aloud. He did not want Jharna to see him like this.
Jharna lifted his hand and put her thin, strong arm around his back. His arm was now around her bony, strong shoulder. He felt her warmth soaking through to his cold, wet body. She pulled him slowly to his feet and then he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. He was not wearing his spectacles and the mirror was misty with steam, but the little he saw of himself shamed him. His bones stuck out under leathery, spotted skin. The thin strands of hair he had left were plastered to his skull. To make it worse, the towel slipped and Jharna had to catch it before it fell off leaving him completely exposed. His back was hurting and he was holding on to the towel and trying not to lean too strongly against her. Water from his body wet her shoulder, turning the blouse a deeper shade of red.
He felt what he was, naked. Tulsi stood behind him, saying something about old people being a huge trouble. Jharna placed him on his bed against the backdrop of Tulsi’s moaning about calling the doctor again and about how he could never take care of himself and stop being a nuisance. Jharna pulled her hand slowly from under his back, then pulled the sheet on him, and stood up. Ram suddenly felt alone without the warmth and reached out. He caught her hand as she was leaving. Jharna pulled her hand out and left. He was still not wearing his spectacles. He could not see her face.
When his breathing returned to normal, he painfully pushed a vest and a pyjama on himself, put on his spectacles and lay down again. Jharna came with tea. Nothing had happened. Her expression was normal but that loose tendril was out again on her forehead. She stood patiently while he raised himself slightly and had the tea. She took the cup back and came back, standing over him as before. He lied down and put his spectacles away. Ram turned away from her and then on his stomach. She leaned over the bed and started massaging his back through his vest. It hurt but it felt very nice.
Maybe this thing was beyond the everyday words Ram had tried to use to describe it. This wasn’t love, or maybe it was in some form. It wasn’t purely love for a child, or sympathy, or attraction. Maybe it was simpler. Maybe he was just hungry for warm touch. Jharna reached out and wiped another tear that had escaped his eye. Something swelled and overflowed inside. A fresh flood of tears escaped and Jharna wiped them too. Ram could not say anything. One, his throat had choked up and two, he did not have any words to say.
Jharna could not reach his right side standing up and she sat down on the bed. Ram felt the slight thud of the bed, the slight depression of the mattress. For the first time since she had come into the house, she was sitting on anything but the floor. Ram wondered what it meant to her, and what it felt like. But he did not want to look at her. He was very confused. Her hands were kneading his back. Her fingers were rough and her grip firm. She had a workman’s hands. The bed was moving slightly in the rhythm of the massage. Now it was hurting him, but he did not say anything. She loosened her hand if he winced, but he controlled his wincing after that. She was still on the bed and his eyes were still closed.
The same sequence happened. He did not know why or how Tulsi wasn’t there in the room. In fact he did not even think about Tulsi. For a while it was just pain, then there was warmth and then there was bliss. Ram felt everything dissolve into one warm mush. He was sitting beside the river with Jharna on a stone seat. Then they were in front of a fire, there was a forest around them and it was dark. Juhi was still beside him and he held her hands. But wasn’t it Jharna earlier? Maybe… Was there a difference? Both were figments of imagination. He was alone in a very soft bed – no – he was in his mother’s lap. His mother’s stern face was soft with emotion. She was weeping and was saying something he couldn’t hear. It was growing dark. He slept off.
He woke up to loud shouting in the kitchen. Then Tulsi stormed into the room and threw her ring of keys on the dressing table. What was wrong? He did not ask for he knew Tulsi would tell him. Her shoulders were heaving and her breath came out in gasps.
Tulsi sat on the bed and said the girl had a problem. No stealing, no neglect of work. Jharna wanted a leave. Just after Puja. Ram thought about telling Tulsi it was reasonable, considering how the girl had worked, but he didn’t say anything. The matter did not get resolved. Jharna wanted to go. Tulsi let her go, with a final unnecessary threat that any replacements coming Tulsi’s way might be used, and there was no guarantee of permanent employment. The night before she left, Tulsi sent her out to buy vegetables, and went through Jharna’s luggage, to ensure she had not stolen anything.
The next morning was cloudy, and Ram was not feeling well. He kept it to himself though. His back was fine but his legs hurt. His chest hurt when fully expanded, but maybe it was the winter. He wore his red sweater and pyjamas and sat on his chair, waiting for Jharna to go. Jharna came out of the house into the veranda and touched his feet before he could react. He touched her oiled head and blessed her, though no words came out. Jharna was looking very different. He felt empty. He realised he was very attached to her.
She was wearing kohl, and she was wearing a shiny saree. Her bag was clutched to her side as if it contained the most valuable things in the world. But there was something else about her that Ram couldn’t place. Her eyes, for the first time since he had seen her, were gleaming and alive.
But it wasn’t her eyes that he found different. Later Ram remembered what he had spotted but not really noticed then. In the small moment when she bent down to touch his feet, In the neat parting of her hair, he had seen vermillion. Jharna was married.
Life without Jharna was difficult. The biggest factor was the absence of a buffer between Ram and Tulsi, and the absence of another outlet for Tulsi’s frustrations. Now everything was Ram’s fault. One day the water didn’t come on time. Another day the house was too dusty, the garden was too dry. While Ram resented that, he did see Tulsi work hard on the house. She would often come into the veranda in those days, fanning herself with the end of her sari and trying to dry her sweat. She would sometimes look at him with disdain, vegetating on his hair, and then move on to other things that had to be done. Things got a little better after Mrs. Bose’s maid ran away with the chowkidar’s son and Tulsi felt less alone in her misery.
A house is an organism. It takes caring. The maids had kept the wheels moving and oiled. Now it was just Tulsi. Ram would sometimes go out to buy vegetables or rice or fish, often taking longer than it took to return. Tulsi shouted to herself or at him most of the day, or called their daughter long-distance. Once she went shopping with the lady next door, and Ram just sat on the veranda with unread newspapers in his lap, smiling and wondering if he would miss Tulsi in case she ran away with someone. Tulsi had not shown any outward signs of infidelity.
Then Tulsi caught a cold, then a fever and everything else that was in the air and in catching distance. She had flu and was on medicines. Ram made tea for her with the leaves of the plant she was named for, thrice a day. Dirty utensils piled up. The racks weren’t dusted and the floor wasn’t mopped. It was just swept once-a-day by the maid next door. Ram looked at her but only missed Jharna. It was two days from the day she had promised to return. He thought about the vermillion he had seen in her hair. Did he imagine that? He realised he had never asked Jharna about her life, her family and her home. Where did she go to? Jharna had not said anything but for the generic term ‘home’. It could be her parents’ place, or her village, or some maternal aunt or something. Most probably she would have gone to her husband. What was he like? Was he a useless drunkard living on his wife’s earnings? Did Jharna have small, skinny children with oiled hair? He wished he had asked. Tulsi got worse, and now the blame for her illness shifted from Ram to Jharna.
Once, in those times, he also felt emotion towards Tulsi. He could see that she tried hard to keep the house running. Her forehead was warm, and Ram could finally do something for her, like get medicines and grocery. She stopped fighting. There were specks of grey on her temples, and in the parting of her hair. Ram was surprised he had not noticed it before.
The next day it rained again. Ram had seen the rains from this veranda for many years now. He knew what it was. This was the last rain before the winter. This was when the cold took a quantum leap into single-digit temperatures. More woollens had to be taken out, but they were up in the loft. None of them could climb up. He had the strange thought that if Jharna did not come on time, they would both shrivel in the cold and die. But he was exaggerating. They could always call their neighbour’s son. Tulsi was shivering and Ram had called a doctor. He arrived fully drenched and told Tulsi there was nothing to worry about. Another list of medicines had to be bought. Ram waited for the rain to ease. He made more Tulsi-Chai for himself and Tulsi. Daughter called. She was well and the younger son had one more tooth coming out. It was cold in Delhi. When Ram heard that, he felt colder. The rain eased and the wind started to blow. There will be mist in the mountains. Ram had once been in the hills a long time back. He had lost his way in the mist and he was found two days later, unconscious. But then it wasn’t him who got lost, it was that other reckless person he used to be in his previous life.
Ram was happy. He should have known from the rain that Jharna was about to come. It was raining when she came first. Jharna showed no emotion, no shiny saree, no kohl and no vermillion. Maybe he imagined it, the vermillion was his fear. Or maybe she just put it on to ward off advances in her journey home. He knew about fake vermillion, Muslim women often put it in their hair when there were religious riots. He was confused. Jharna went into the kitchen and washed all the stinking dishes in cold water. Then she swept the house and mopped it. Then she asked for money, went to buy fish and biscuits, came back, made a thin curry of fish with rice, ate silently in the kitchen while Ram and Tulsi ate on Tulsi’s bed, then came back for utensils, washed them, cleaned the bathrooms and went out to water plants. No words were exchanged between any of the people in the house. The house was back in shape. Tulsi said she felt better. She took a medicine and slept off. Ram came back to his chair on the veranda. Jharna was massaging Tulsi’s back as she slept. She was kneeling on the floor; she was not sitting on the bed.
After a while she came with a glass of water for Ram. For the first time, and for no reason, Ram smiled at her. Jharna smiled back for the first time and covered her face with her hand. She took the other glass with her and poured the leftover water into their Tulsi plant on the way. Her smile was beautiful and very innocent. It seemed to Ram that Jharna was not a person who smiled often. Her smile had the rare, unused and hesitant look about it. He felt nice, and in a strange way, privileged.
Jharna did not come out to sit by the doorstep. She must be in the kitchen, or in her tiny room at the foot of the stairs. The rain stopped completely now.
Later in the evening, after dinner, Tulsi said she was glad Jharna was back. She felt reassured that there was someone at home to take care of them. Then she said she would cut Jharna’s salary for the days she didn’t come. These people had to be kept in their place. In one day, everything was back to normal.
That winter was harsh, and despite being younger, Tulsi was taking it worse. The cold got to her. It sometimes got really bad and then eased up, but it never really left her. She was advised bed rest, then a change of climate, and assured all the while nothing seriously was wrong with her. Tulsi got crankier with each passing day and with each dropping Celsius and Ram tried staying out of her way as much as he could. The days were cold in every sense, and life felt like living only when Jharna was around. Jharna did not speak much still, but just her presence brought reassurance to Ram, and in a strange way, to Tulsi too. In a fit of love, Tulsi gifted Jharna a torn maroon shawl. Jharna stitched it together with a black thread and wore it every day. A few nights, Ram got up to make tea or reheat soup for Tulsi. One night he stayed up since Tulsi couldn’t sleep, and he caught up with sleep the next afternoon while Jharna gave Tulsi a massage. That night he had seen that Tulsi now had wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. He had stroked her grey hair to see if they were real. Maybe she wasn’t as invincible as he thought, and just like him, she could die.
Once again, Ram thought about the possibility of life without Tulsi, and he was surprised by how little he felt for her. While Tulsi slept, Ram would sometimes look at her face twisted into ugliness and often he would feel a wave of revulsion flow through his being; followed by a wave of guilt for having felt revulsion.
Then just when Tulsi was recovering, Jharna got unwell. It first started with sneezing and coughing, and the shawl that used to be around her shoulders started covering parts of her head and face. She kept working and Tulsi accused her of spreading germs in the house just as she was recovering. Ram held his breath, but Jharna did not react. The moment passed. In that moment Ram saw a bleak view of the future. He thought Jharna might also leave soon if Tulsi started her accusations, and he did not really look forward to a cold winter alone with just Tulsi. Jharna kept coughing and working as hard as she normally did. She felt guilty when she coughed, and Ram noticed Jharna would look around quickly to check if anyone minded just after she coughed. She did not talk about going home like Tulsi feared.
Then one day, as she was replacing his glass of water, Ram asked her to stop, and asked her to come near him. Tulsi was asleep. Jharna stood where she was. Ram got up slowly and walked to her. He smiled at her and Jharna feebly smiled back. She coughed again. Ram felt Jharna’s forehead. He was expecting it to be warm but it was scalding hot. She was burning in fever. This was the first time he had touched her. For the first time since his retirement, Ram took a stand.
That evening when Tulsi got up, he said he wanted Jharna to rest since she had high fever. Tulsi asked him if Jharna had told him that, and then said these people always lied to avoid work in winter. Before he could say anything, Tulsi called Jharna inside and asked her if she had fever. Jharna stood silent, staring at her toes. Ram told Jharna she need not work and she should rest till she was better. Tulsi was shocked to see Ram had a spine left after all these years.
An ugly confrontation was expected and happened. Tulsi could not imagine a housemaid having to rest because of fever, and Ram could not imagine making someone work in ill health, and Jharna waited for her fate to be decided between the two of them. When Ram looked at her and she still had the same unfathomable expression on her face, along with a look of complete resignation and acceptance of whatever the decision was. He was sure she would calmly work to her death if need be. Tulsi changed her stance. She now could not believe Ram was taking Jharna’s side. Ram knew Tulsi actually could not believe Ram had an opinion, and the bone of contention just happened to be Jharna.
Ram did not budge and Tulsi could not take it. The fight was tiring Ram. Jharna started cooking dinner and Ram felt strange since the person he was fighting for did not want to fight at all. Then he reminded himself that it wasn’t a person he was fighting for. It was about basic right and wrong. He told Tulsi that, and Tulsi reminded him he had not fought for other similar rights and wrongs when they happened before. Ram told her he was glad she at least admitted to doing wrong before. The argument continued late into the night, and Jharna sat on the cold veranda since she did not want to pass the two of them on her way to her small room at the back. Tulsi finally said Jharna could rest all she wanted, and called Jharna in. Tulsi told her she could pack her bags and leave. Jharna did not blink. Ram wanted to say something but couldn’t. He had a shooting pain in his chest. Jharna coughed and walked slowly to her room. Ram clutched his chest and sat on the bed. His eyes clouded over and he couldn’t see anything. Tulsi asked him to leave her alone. There was no other room. He would have to sleep on the veranda. Ram wanted to tell Tulsi it was his house, and if she had a problem she could leave. Ram wanted to tell Tulsi he hated her. But he couldn’t say anything. His chest was hurting and he could not see properly, even with glasses on. Tulsi said something sarcastic about him feeling for a maid more than his wife, then something implying he had relations with her. Her words grew fainter and blurred into the black background. He felt the world grow fainter and fell.
His last memory, before falling down unconscious was that of calling out Jharna’s name.
Ram regained consciousness in a nursing home. He did not know how long he had been that way, but a long time later, he started hearing faint noises around him in the dark. He tried opening his eyes but could not take the effort. He kept lying down with his eyes closed, while the faint noises grew in strength. He knew he wasn’t dead, and he was in a hospital of some sort. He heard a nurse calling out to another. He heard a ward-boy cleaning the floor – the crusty brush of the broom on the floor. He heard coughing from far away, and lots of footsteps. He heard Tulsi’s voice calling out for tea from the canteen – she had been up all night she said. When he felt a little stronger, he opened his eyes.
He saw Tulsi and the neighbour’s wife beside the bed. Tulsi was reading the newspaper and yawning. The neighbour’s wife had brought her knitting along and a half-made sock dangled from her needles. They did not see him and they spoke to each other. The sock grew in size like a stalactite. He tried to remember the lady’s name but couldn’t. Then she saw him awake and shrieked, as if she’d seen the dead move. Tulsi looked surprised at him being alive. She did not start off shouting as he had expected. She ran off to find the doctor. Ram was released two days later. He had had a mild heart attack and there was nothing to worry, but he should take care and not take stress in this age. There was a long list of medicines to be bought. The neighbour’s son would bring them later. They took a taxi and went back home. No words were exchanged between Tulsi and Ram. They kept looking out of their windows.
Ram could not see Jharna. Instead of asking Tulsi anything, he walked slowly around the house while Tulsi shouted at him to sit down and not cause more problems. Maybe Tulsi did care for him in a strange way. No Jharna in the garden, bedroom or bathroom or hall. The kitchen was empty and dirty. The dirt pronounced her absence more than anything. Ram looked past the kitchen into the one place he had not looked. The small room Jharna stayed in was empty. Jharna had left behind the maroon shawl neatly folded on the bed. Ram stepped in and breathed in the last lingering reminders of Jharna. When he closed his eyes he could smell faint traces of her hair oil. He heard something behind him and he turned to see Tulsi staring at him. Her eyes held countless accusations and he was too tired to answer any. He saw a glass with some water beside the bed. He felt thirsty and irritated with Tulsi’s ugly eyes boring into his back. He sat on the bed, Jharna’s bed, and reached out for the water.
Tulsi’s acidic voice floated in, asking him if he missed her. Maybe they should look for another young maid for him. Ram felt his body grow tired and weak as the stale water trickled down his throat. He closed his eyes and lay down on the bed. Tulsi kept standing on the door. Ram kept waiting for Tulsi to go so that he could breathe again, and in some time he slept.
In those moments before he slept, he remembered Jharna like she came in, dripping rain. Then those times they sat in the veranda in their own worlds, that one time he felt like hugging her, the time her thin fingers massaged his calves. Then he could just see her face, silent, patient and imploring. He saw her eyes with too much kohl, and too much innocence in them. He saw that tendril of hair dancing on her forehead. He did not see vermillion. Should he trust his memory or his imagination?
He heard Tulsi bang the door shut. He was almost asleep then. With a last effort before sleep engulfed him, he pulled the maroon shawl to him and held it between his fingers. He felt the black thread holding it together. He slept. He dreamt of Jharna. She was sitting on a small boat in the Ganges, and she held a small child in her arms. Her eyes looked sad. Then he saw himself in the same boat. His head was in his mother’s lap and she was weeping. When he woke up hours later, he tried folding the shawl back and realised his fingers were red with traces of vermillion.
Tulsi later apologised to him. Ram had woken up to a silent home, and when he had wandered to the veranda he had seen Tulsi sitting in his chair, weeping. Her shoulders sagged and shook slightly. Ram was about to turn around and walk in again when Tulsi started telling him she was sorry. Ram did not want to hear her, but he just stood there with his back to her, amazed at the moment. He could not remember the last time Tulsi had felt or said sorry. Tulsi’s tears seemed genuine. She said she knew Ram and Jharna did not have an affair. She did not know why she said those things she did. She said after Ram had collapsed that night, Jharna had helped Tulsi get him to the nursing home. When they had put him on the stretcher, Jharna had touched his feet. Then they had both come home and some time late in the night, Jharna had left.
Ram did not really take care of himself after that but he felt himself getting better. Things were better between him and Tulsi. Tulsi did not shout at him now. Actually they spoke very little to each other now. Another maid arrived from somewhere but Ram did not even ask her what her name was, or even look at her face. This maid was old and fat; and she stank of pan and tobacco. Ram never asked her for anything and the moment Tulsi was out of the house, the maid would go to Jharna’s room and sleep.
Ram hated her, especially when she slept in Jharna’s room. He knew he hated this lady for no fault of hers. But what could he do? He often wondered about Jharna and hoped she was well. He wanted to find out about her, but he had no idea how to. This new lady did not sit in the veranda, and that place again belonged to Ram alone. She preferred to sleep and snore in the afternoon in what was now her room, till Tulsi woke her up in the evening.
Ram would sometimes close his eyes in the afternoons and try to imagine Jharna at the doorstep, with the wind blowing her oiled hair across her forehead. Sometimes he couldn’t imagine her, but at some other times, he imagined her so vividly that when he opened his eyes, he was surprised she wasn’t actually there. He dreamt of her once, but in that dream she was a mix of a lot of people. He wished he would dream of her again but it did not happen. He was scared of forgetting her, and of her forgetting him. He sometimes sat on his veranda and tried imagining her.
One day he saw someone like her in the fish market, a young, lanky woman with a kid on her waist. The woman was standing tilted, and the baby perched on the kink, supported by her hip and a careless arm. First Ram saw her like he’d see any other woman, with faint, pointless curiosity, but then he saw the similarities. He saw the same lean frame and oiled hair. The light was too dim to figure out anything else. The fish market was always half dark, even in the afternoon, so that the mongers could sell the stale stuff they had. Ram was so surprised that he did not think of following her. When he did think of it, she was gone. He couldn’t see her on the street outside.
Then he kept seeing her. Always in places he did not expect her, always on the periphery of his eye, and always vanishing before he could confirm if it was her. Once he got close to her and then he found it was not really her. Maybe all this while it had been someone else he was following. He felt very sad that night, lying awake in bed. Tulsi had covered so much of the bed that he did not have space to sleep, but what kept him awake were thoughts of Jharna. It was so long he had even spoken her name. He tried saying it aloud, then decided on a whisper, and then checked to see if Tulsi’s snoring pattern was disturbed. No, everything was fine. He slipped out of bed and silently opened the latch. He went out into the veranda. He sat right next to where Jharna used to sit. The new maid had sullied Jharna’s room, but the veranda was everyone’s and no one’s. It was still Jharna’s. Her oily smell hung around the place. He said her name again, louder this time. Till very late that night, he kept talking to her – about everything he wanted to but hadn’t. He told her how he missed her, and how he was willing to do anything at all for her. He could fight with anyone, perhaps the whole world, if only she came back.
‘If’ and ‘only’ are sad words, both of them.
All through the conversation, he did not hear her say anything. He could see her, of course, but she spoke no words. She stared patiently across the road, with the tendril dancing in the wind. The rest of her was still as a rock. When the sky grew lighter in colour but the birds were yet to wake up, Ram dragged himself to sleep again. Now Tulsi had shifted slightly in her sleep and he had space to sleep. As he was drifting off to sleep again, he kept thinking why the memory of Jharna did not talk, and in the last drifting moments, Ram realised he had already forgotten her voice.
By the time it was summer again, the loss of Jharna had, like other small things in life, fallen into a schedule. It would surface at regular intervals and then lie hidden till Ram saw someone like her. Tulsi was either unaware of these strong feelings or had chosen to ignore them. Or maybe she realised, more than Ram, that there could be feelings that were strong but harmless. Tulsi and Ram were tied together in circumstance, and circumstances remained the same as the day before Jharna came in. The fat maid left leaving Jharna’s room full of pan stains. Tulsi had decided to kick her out long back but had been waiting for the winter to get over. Maids were easier to find in the summer, she said. And Ram noticed Tulsi wasn’t as emotional as she used to be. She was calculating, scheming and frequently cruel.
Or maybe his attitude was wrong. Tulsi must also be a victim of circumstance. Times must have formed and changed her to what she was today. Deep down inside, everyone was good, right? He wasn’t sure but there was no reason to believe otherwise. Everyone was nice. What was happening, what had happened, was all good, and for good. Jharna must be happier somewhere else. Tulsi must be happier without her – the obstinate silent maid who did not even fight back. And if that was the general rule, he too must be happier. Maybe he was just deliberately making it worse by sticking on to the past.
Jharna, memory or imagination, whatever she was, was shelved away like an old book he had read and liked. Ram thought about the books he had read and liked, before his eyes were too weak to read anything but the newspaper. He knew they were all safely kept away somewhere with moth-balls. He did not know where they were in the house, but knew they were ‘somewhere’ in the house.
Ram started reading the newspaper again and half-way through the story he realised he had read it twice before. There was a cup of tea on the small table. Did Tulsi make it? No, she must have already kept a maid. He did not hope it was Jharna again. Tulsi very rarely repeated maids, since now they knew where the valuables were, as if there were any. He hoped, in fact, that it was someone not even remotely like Jharna.
The memory of Jharna came back with her name. Ram seemed to remember her clearly, but wasn’t sure. Maybe he had been, unknown to himself, chiselling away at her features to give her larger eyes, a slimmer waist, maybe a smile too. He just remembered clearly that there was vermillion in her hair, and she had a life beyond the good she did as part of her job here. And for once, he thought about her objectively, as a folly of his age. He was sure she did not remember them, or him. There was nothing between them to call a relation. Maybe she was just another diversion from real life that he indulged in – an escape. That then made her a fantasy. Maybe if she did come back, things will not be nice at all. Maybe if he was married to Jharna, she wouldn’t have even stuck around as long as Tulsi had.
Suddenly, Ram found himself thinking in ways he had not thought in, in a long time.
Tulsi was real. She may not be the best woman on earth, but she was really there. It was not fair to make her compete with a fantasy. Ram was surprised all of it made so much sense put this way. Why did he not think like this earlier? He and Tulsi were habits to each other now. They were safe that way. There is nothing like everlasting love in real life. When you love someone too long, you start taking the person for granted. You don’t send each other flowers every day. You don’t need to. Such is life, insipid but comfortable. Not bad at all.
It turned out that it was Tulsi who had made the tea. Dr. Chowdhry’s wife had promised to come, and Tulsi had planned to go shopping with her to the AC market. Now she wasn’t coming, and she had already prepared tea for her. She came in carrying a plate of biscuits and told Ram all this. She had an identical cup in her hand. There were drops of sweat on her forehead that she was trying to wipe off with the end of her Sari. Today he smiled at her as he put on his spectacles. It was a long time since Tulsi had made tea for him. She made good tea. He held the cup in both hands and looked at her. She was blushing, or maybe it was just the March heat magnified in the kitchen. She looked away and started complaining about Dr. Chowdhry and his wife – always cancelling appointments, as if her time was not important. She had to buy summer clothes for their daughter’s son. Cottons were always best bought from Calcutta. These thieves sold the same stuff in Delhi for three times the price.
Tulsi now had a lot of grey hair, all around the parting in her hair and on her temples, and wrinkles around the eye, the mouth, and then he notices her chubby hands also had tiny wrinkles running all along. He had perhaps not even looked directly at her in a long time. He saw faint wrinkles around her eyes. She had lost weight. She looked a little weak. She looked at him suddenly and asked him what was wrong, why was he smiling? Ram did not say anything, but kept a hand on her hand. Things were fine. Jharna had left quietly and her work was done. He squeezed Tulsi’s hand reassuringly.
And Tulsi exploded and shook her hand away.
“What do you mean? It’s ok? Just imagine, three times the price – one cotton T-shirt for one-fifty? Bloody thieves, all of them. Your tea is growing cold. And I don’t want to talk to the Chowdhry’s again. So you call them and ask them if they know of a good maid. No pan-chewing old lady. I want a decent maid, like that one… whatever her name was.”
Not that she liked being that way. She envied people who could be open and frank about themselves (or at least appeared to be so). Shankar was one of those people. He could sit with a bunch of strangers, loosen his tie, and start off. Just start off, about anything that was his own, and personal (apparently) – from how he lost his first job to the time he got hauled up by the police (because he had not shaved and the police thought it was an attempt at disguise – well he was so frequently unshaven that he’d have to just shave to make himself completely unrecognisable, she thought). She was sure he could talk about more appalling stuff (like a missing testicle or erectile dysfunction, perhaps) with perfect ease. Shankar used to tell her he was jealous about his earlier girlfriend having a nice life, better than his own. He harboured thoughts of robbing a bank – something he wanted to do at least once in his lifetime; and he used to talk like that to everyone (maybe that is why he got picked up by the police, on second thoughts). She just kept nodding wherever she thought appropriate, and secretly wishing he won’t burden her with more of his public secrets.
What made them secrets was the way he said it, bowing his head, staring into his glass all the time, with those long sighs in between, shaking his head from time to time. It seemed to her that most of these secrets were made up, and described as seen in the crystal ball of his drink. He would place his head in his hand sometimes and wring his forehead, then squeeze his eyes shut, breathe in deeply and shake up from his supposed reverie. She knew it was all made up, but these were interesting performances – some of them were really absorbing – and she had felt drawn into them on more than a few occasions. The only way she prevented that on other times was to closely watch other people getting drawn in. he spoke often of such self-degrading stuff that everyone assumed it had to be true, and it had to take a lot of courage to open up like that.
She knew it took more than that.
She had tried being open a number of times. Her parents read too much into it, and when she told them she was dreaming about the guy next door, they almost bought a home pregnancy kit (which is a funny name, but not entirely untrue for her; in her home, if she would have been pregnant, the entire home would have acted pregnant). Her first and only almost-boyfriend had always slept off in the middle of her most intimate stories. And in the day-time he would keep looking at his watch so much that she could not bring herself to talk. When she left off a story midway, he would never insist on her completing it. He would instead something banal and inane, like those comments people made when covering up for a meeting they’d slept through. She sometimes wondered what she would have done had he insisted. Maybe she could have thought of an alternate ending for her memory, a little like she suspected Shankar of doing, only in Shankar’s case she had her doubts about the beginnings too. When she sat on the next table in the cafeteria, Shankar would sometimes shoot quick glances at her – maybe he checked like a thief afraid of being caught. She had this excruciating temptation to wink, at those times.
They were casual colleagues – like one has casual friends versus friends. They knew each other, but nothing about each other. She never disclosed anything, and did not believe anything he said about himself. And, to be fair, they had never really talked to each other. Opposites didn’t attract in her case, and the highest emotion she felt for him was occasional passing curiosity. They were almost always a part of a group, because Shankar liked to – let’s say ‘confess’, to groups and was in his element then; and because she also hung around in groups. She could be alone and yet not called a recluse. A few times they had run into each other, at bus stops and in elevators, but they’d stuck to a ‘hi’ and looking in different directions thereafter. Maybe he knew she did not trust his stories, or maybe he did not think that much, but just assumed, rightly, that she was not great audience.
There was just a childhood friend of hers that Aashima could think of confiding in, but there she was faced with her second problem – a singular lack of interesting things to confide. Hers was a very standard predictable life that seemed either comfortable or insipid to her depending on what her mood was like. Her childhood was lonely, but then so was her youth and now her early-middle age. There were very few incidences that stood out in her life and weren’t already depicted by others (perhaps better) in their stories, books and movies.
Then one evening after a party they were sitting on a table alone, Aashima and Shankar. Their office party was over and Shankar was helping himself to yet another last drink that he was finding difficult to finish. She was waiting for Madhu, who promised to drop her home but now both Madhu and her phone were unreachable. She shouldn’t have told Madhu that thing about pulling the battery out of the phone instead of switching it off – so that it was always ‘unreachable’ and never actually ‘switched off’. Sitting on that table seemed the safest thing to do, with all kinds of weird characters circling around them clearing tables and trying to peep into her blouse. Finally Shankar managed to finish his drink, banged it on the table and precariously stood up. The glass and Shankar tottered into near-vertical positions. His laces were undone and she told him, while she wondered how she’d get home that night. He did not seem to hear, and swaggered slowly out of the hall, laces trailing. She went and stood in the balcony for a while, trying to spot anyone who was still there. She tried Madhu’s phone again to hear the same recording about the phone being unavailable and that she should ‘please’ try again later. The voice asked her if she wanted to leave a message. She left a message that just said, “Bitch” and hung up.
A middle aged man made his way towards her. He must have been the supervisor of those men earlier waiting on them and now clearing tables. He asked her if she was ok, and she said she was absolutely fine. Then he just stood there and lit a cigarette, and she told him she was allergic to smoke – which she wasn’t – and he just kept the lit cigarette in his hand and asked her if she was alone, if he could drop her home, who was that man with her, and then if she-well-uhm-you know-well-did-that. She did not ask him what he meant by ‘that’, but she made her way again to the table, and now she was afraid. The man shouted after her to ask how much she charged for a night. She heard invisible sniggers around her, which were now threatening. And then he asked her how much he asked how much she took for one shot. She was blessed with extremely average looks, which protected her as long as there were prettier women around, but now she was alone and being plain did not help. And then, just when she thought she might have to run to the balcony again and jump out, in case things got funny (there was grass below, and a few shrubs that could ease the fall – but even if she survived the fall, there was no surety she’d escape – and escape to what – the whole street was deserted at this hour) – Shankar re-entered the scene. She was never so happy to see him.
He came in grinning sheepishly and wiping his tie with a tissue from the bathroom. He had gone to the loo, and now he was, in his own famous last words, ‘absolutely in control’. She almost hugged him. She now had to ask him to drop her home. She promised herself she’d leave another bitchy message for Madhu as soon as she was home. They walked to the stairs, where the ‘how much do you charge’ guy was standing. He stood on the landing, completely unashamed and with eyes boring into her. She ignored him and ask Shankar if he could drive (stupid question actually, she couldn’t drive herself). He turned around and suddenly caught hold of the how-much-do-you-charge guy by the collar, and before he (the guy) could react, he (Shankar) suddenly kicked him hard in the balls. He made a loud statement about him (the guy) needing more shots, and hard, or something like that. Of-course she didn’t hear that clearly because she panicked and ran, and was halfway down the stairs by the time the sentence was over. The next thing she knew was that she’d slipped on the asphalt and her knee was most probably scraped.
Her heart was beating fast and she realized she was weeping - no sobbing – no, perhaps howling was the word. It took her some long time to realize she was still sitting on the road. She got up, her dress was torn around the knee. Tonight was the night of embarrassments. Shankar walked slowly out of the place and still seemed to be in no hurry. Finally she had to tell him she was sorry to be pushing him, but she was scared and they should be leaving.
She was walking ten paces ahead of Shankar and then she waited by his car. No further activity could be seen from the hall or the balcony, or the stairs. While she stood there trying to breathe normally, she realized it was quite a lovely night. Insects chirped in the bushes, and there were a few fireflies around. The moon was dim behind the trees.
Shankar finally arrived, chuckling to himself. The last thing she wanted to hear was a joke about her falling– or about her weight – or anything else, she’d just had enough of sarcastic men.
But had she? She had just one – well almost one. Her score was in mid-decimals. It turned out that Shankar was reliving the kick in the balls. That was his first. Then Shankar asked her if he could drop her home. She did not say anything. Stupid questions called for stupid answers, and she felt it was one of the moments she could have been extremely nasty, however glad she was for him being there. Some of her fear still remained, and her heart was still beating faster, pushing rushes of warm blood to her throbbing temples; and Shankar was taking an eternity taking out his car keys. He finally unlocked the car and they got in. He started the car and rolled down the windows, then leaned far out of the car to look behind as he reversed. He craned his neck so much that she thought he would topple any moment.
He did not seem to know the way to her house, though he assured her he did. He launched into another confession, or maybe a mix of confessions, about how her ear-rings reminded him of his second class English teacher (why were all these crushes on English or Geography teachers? She wondered), who had the same pair (maybe he meant similar), and they tinkled as she walked, and how little second-standard Shankar would get wet dreams in his second-standard sleep, interspersed with those ear-ring-tinkles. She let him finish, right up to his line about his not having told anyone about it so far, a thought that struck him as funny. He implied there was a special connection between them – and looked at the moon and smiled, shaking his head slowly. She asked him if he had wet dreams at seven years of age, and he said it was something like wet dreams. She laughed and asked if he pissed in his pants in the night because of those ear-ring-tinkles? Then she took one of her ear-rings in her hands and shook it, and asked if he felt anything. Shankar stopped the car and got out to – she couldn’t believe it – relieve himself between two large bushes. She always thought the vilest of men do that, and was surprised to find herself laughing.
She asked him again if he had wet dreams back then, and before he could answer, she asked if he was over his menopause then – assuming he had the same number of fertile years the other men did. Shankar did not seem disappointed at all. He just kept smiling and driving. Then he turned to her and told her he lied, most of the time. And she told him that she, for once, believed him completely. They were now in a completely different part of the town, one that wasn’t anywhere near her house. This was in-face the station area, the one area where one could find 24-hour shops in this town. She asked him finally what his plan was, and if he wanted directions to her house. Somehow she wasn’t scared. Shankar said he thought it was a good idea to pick up a bottle of wine to finish the evening off. She waited in the car while he disappeared into a small lane and emerged with an open bottle of wine and – another surprise – an ice-cream that he thrust into her hands. She loved ice-cream, though she did not remembering telling anyone at the office about it. Then he continued driving, occasionally taking sips of wine, in the right direction this time. She wondered why she wasn’t scared of her fellow casual-co-employee whom she had no reason to trust. Her ankle was hurting; she had injured it when she had fallen on him. She hoped she did not feature, at least by name, in another one of his public confessions.
This time around, he kept asking her about her life. She kept mum initially, and then started lying. After the first few, it came extremely easy to her. She was now supposedly born in a different town, different country – now her parents were divorced, father was now a pilot (which was funny, because her dad was actually an accountant, and made for a funny picture when mentally dressed as a pilot) and her mother had given up everything for religious pursuits (she had actually run off with her father’s more glamorous friend). This was nice, and she was soon enjoying herself. When he asked about her sister, she asked – what sister? And then he reminded her she had told him about her two minutes back. She told him she must have been lying. He just took another sip and kept smiling and driving. He was very drunk, but was managing the car ok. The streets were empty, and stray dogs chased them at intervals.
He dropped her off and kept sitting in the car. She had to come back from the door and ask him if he was ok. He said he was drunk. She asked him if she could help him get better. He said he meant he was fine when he said he was drunk – he was drunk and fine. Then he asked if they could talk for longer. She said of-course not. What came out of her mouth instead was an emphatic ‘of-course’. Aashima wondered if she was drunk too. He parked his car and came up the stairs. There were greater forces of nature propelling them on – at least her. She had not meant this to happen. Now she was conscious of her heart beating fast again, temples throbbed back to attention. She opened her door, turned around and said maybe it was not a good idea. Shankar said ‘and maybe it was’ and helped himself in. She suddenly felt very tired and regretted the idea. Sex was out of the question, and so was detailed inane imagined conversation. She told him.
He came to where she was sitting, sat beside her and took her hand. Her fingers were cold. Her temples were warm, and her heart was in her mouth. He calmly told her something that – in his senses – he would not have told her (supposedly). He counted on his fingers for a while and said he had had seventeen drinks, and right now, he was like a brother to her. Even if she had wanted something to happen, he was physically incapable even if he were to be mentally willing. Then he kissed her on her forehead and held her hands between his till they were warmer. She figured she had been lying through the last hour anyway, and told him she loved him. By this time, she had it all figured out. Shankar was probably the safest guy to have up in her flat. When Shankar will confess, no one would believe him.
He had carried his bottle of wine, and poured out what was left in four coffee cups he found in the kitchen. He gave her a cup and made himself comfortable on the armchair with another. Then he asked her about the time she had her first wild affair. She said she did not have one. He was surprised, and then asked her what stopped her from still, telling him. She did not understand at first, and then remembered who she was talking to. She had been right about him all along. She smiled and took a sip of the wine. It had a funny taste – a taste you would imagine if someone said bootleg-tangy-white-wine in your ear. She hoped she wouldn’t wake up blind the next day, from spurious liqueur consumption.
She told him about Nikhil, whom she met while she was in college (Nikhil, actually was her best-friend’s brother-in-law, and she met him recently). She did not remember how it started (i.e. was too lazy to make up that part) – but once they ended up going to the beach. Then the two of them just happened to go on a walk on the shore.
Shankar asked if it was a moonlit night.
She closed her eyes, and suddenly she felt she was on a lovely beach. The moon was shining over the silvery waters that gathered in a long foaming, writhing serpent all along the never-ending shore. Sand shone like mirrors where the waves left. She was walking with this man she had never met. The sand was soft and cold. She was looking down at her feet, and all she saw after a while was her feet and his, in rhythm. She had no idea where she was going. Suddenly, when she looked up, she was totally alone with him on the beach. The other friends were distant shouts mingling with the noise of the sea serpent that stretched, still, from one end of the beach to the other, as far as the eyes could see. No words exchanged – he bent to kiss her. She could not see his face clearly, in the dark. She just let herself be kissed. She was young. The frond of hair that bothered her forehead was again there, blowing in the slightly cold breeze blowing them closer. She felt her fingers in his hair, and his arms around her. In his arms was the only warm place on the cold beach that was getting colder. Their lips met again and she felt the moon grow dimmer around her, and then the world faded away slowly. Soon it was just the two of them in the Universe.
A whiff of cigarette smoke reached her nostril and she woke up from her dream. Shankar was not laughing. He squinted at a point in mid-air. She sat silently, quite shaken by the fact that for a while, and for the first time in her life, she felt so close to, well, the real thing. Shankar was not saying anything, but he was clearly awake and listening, with a soft smile on his face. She then told him about the guy, the guy she made out with and then made wild passionate love to on that moonlit beach. The composite guy made up of all the nice things she had secretly seen in men she had met over the years. He had someone’s nose, another guy’s forehead, someone else’s hair – and then someone’s money, someone else’s sense of humour – and of-course he was a sex God who couldn’t live without her. She wondered how ridiculous she sounded. But she was startled to realize they were now on the bed. Shankar’s head was in her lap. She was stroking his thinning hair. Her imaginary sex-God boyfriend had lovely hair – silky and thick, and slightly curly. But then she shouldn’t be with Shankar in real life, as in now, with his head in her lap. Somehow it did not seem to matter so much, but maybe it would in the morning. She took another sip of the spurious wine and wondered how to push Shankar out of the house. She was enjoying the day-dream but then she could carry on herself. Shankar tilted his head to look up as if he read her thoughts. Her stroking had stopped. He took her hand and put it on his head again. The hand started stroking his hair on its own. Morning seemed quite an alien concept.
Shankar asked her about her family – but hadn’t she told him already? But then she found herself telling him about a very different family. Everything was perfect in this family. They were reasonably rich, and her father was an accountant who was doing well. Her mother did not run away but stayed at home to prepare the most delicious food that never got over. Their phone-line was never disconnected as they always paid their bills. Their dog never grew old and blind, and he never died. Everyone loved each other.
She went on till morning, taking sips of his cheap wine and when that was over, the expensive Portuguese wine she had kept hidden for a special occasion. One of her 'awake’ moments, she realized now she had her head in Shankar’s lap, and their fingers played with each other as she spoke. It did not matter. Nothing mattered. Imagination was so much better than what one had to live through each day. In the soft darkness of the night, it seemed more real than the real. Why did everyone prefer the ugly real world when there was a world where you actually rule. She just made her Dad a little taller and a lot thinner. Her mother had almond eyes, and she herself was so pretty. There were people to love her, and people for her to love – each one unconditionally. She could create new people and new houses when she wanted. It was a little like a video game.
When the morning came and she woke up, the realized she and Shankar were both fully clothed in crumpled party clothes. The sheets were crumpled and resembled the Himalayas, as seen from an airplane window. Both wine bottled were empty. The house smelt of tobacco, and she had a splitting headache. Shankar was twisting and turning back to life. He gradually squinted into reality, closed his eyes and rolled off to sleep again. When she had a bath and came out, he was on the armchair again, sucking some cough drops that had been lying on the table. Then when she finally made coffee for both of them, he looked at her searchingly and asked what they had been talking about last night. Last night was a blank for him. He had been at the party, and then both of them were on the last table. People around were clearing tables. And then how did he end up here, on her bed? He hoped he had not done anything funny or stupid.
Then he lit a cigarette and launched into a confession, about how once he was so sloshed that he got mugged and did not even remember, and then some pretty woman from Paris who was visiting town gave him a lift. It was a moonlit night, and she bought him ice-cream from the railway station. Then he thought they had wine, he and that amazingly beautiful woman from Paris. They had spent time at his flat, and she stroked his hair. She still sent him postcards.
She looked at him as she washed the coffee-cups, and the ash-tray. The small bald portion in the middle of his head, slightly to the front, was shining through his thin hair. They had an aspirin each and he offered to drop her to office, one condition – that she tell him clearly what happened that previous night.
Friday, April 20, 2007
We all have our time machines. Some take us back, they're called memories. Some take us forward, they're called dreams.
The Island of Lost Ideas is in mid-creek. Approximately midway between the large land of IS, which was a land on which lived things that existed – it was called the ‘real world – and the larger land of IF, where lived ideas, memories, possibilities and dreams. This was not the real world, but it was real enough for the very small number of masters who lived there. Most masters lived partially in both lands, and would use the huge bridges in between to travel from one to the other. There was a bridge called sleep, and there were smaller ones called crystal-gaze and think. There is always dense mist over the creek. When you’re on one of the bridges, you can see nothing around you, or below you, where the Island is. Very occasionally, the mist clears for a split second, and if you happen to lean on the railing and look below, you’d see the island. The other peculiar thing is that you see the island only if you know its there. It is in some sense one of the few remaining secret islands.
But it is a secret only for masters. Ideas are birds, they don’t use bridges. They fly across the creek from IS to IF, and from IF to IS. The larger Ideas make the whole flight in one go, and the smaller ones rest midway on the Island. These birds are called by their masters, who stay on the land of IS, and are sometimes sent back to the land of IF, where there are nests for them, and food. On the land of IS, there is nothing for them to eat, so once their work is done and their masters are busy, they fly back. If they stay on too long on IS, they die.
Ideas keep getting born and they keep dying. Most ideas come from the land of IS to IF to breed and nest. When the new-born idea feeds on the food in IF, it grows stronger. It learns to fly. One day it is strong enough to fly to IS. These young Ideas come right to the bank of the creek and perch on the branches that hang in the water and stare at their reflections all day. And when the wind is right, and the mist is light, they take a final look back at their home and take flight. What everyone thinks is that some ideas manage to reach the other bank, on the land of IS, and some die making that journey. What masters don’t know is that some ideas, when they are losing breath, are blown by the wind to the Island of Lost Ideas, and here they rest.
It’s freezing cold on the Island. There is no time on the island, and trees are all shrivelled. The fledgling ideas roost on the branches that are sheltered from the wind, fluff up their feathers and close their eyes. Some of them sleep for long times. Some freeze over. Different things happen to different ideas, but two things are important.
Ideas don’t age when they sleep, and they don’t die when they freeze. One warm day they thaw slightly and can hear their masters call to them from across the fog. Sometimes they wake up, rustle their feathers, look at the sky, blink and launch themselves again on their interrupted flight. Some other times, when it’s cold and the wind is not right, they just curl up again and stick their necks in their wings, and go off to sleep again. Some ideas can stay on the island forever.
Last important thing, whatever happens to these ideas on the Island, they remember the wind that saved them and blew them to the island. Wherever they are, in whichever state they are in, they stay in love with the wind.
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
he's a small-town man with a dark-brown tan
they call him a crafter of laughter
he says today you're sad 'n tomorrow's bad
there's laughter for sure day-after
he walks with a crutch; he's out of touch
but he still has a tale to tell
doesn't mix as such or know you much
but he still wishes you well
he's much abused and battered, bruised
still holds his head up high
he's not confused he doesn't feel 'used'
fails but he says he'll try
without bed-sheets, he sleeps on streets
sings in the middle of the night
with smiles he greets all those he meets
and he makes all worries light
he does not cry; but he looks at the sky
and he squints into the space
sometimes with a sigh he wipes his eye
and tells a story of his place
he comes from the land of sun and sand
they have a small hut of straw
all lives are planned in lines on the hand
they haven't even heard of law
there's fun and pain there's sun and rain
they sleep underneath the sky
they're a bit short of grain now and again
but they have enough to get by
he came to the town 'n it burnt him brown
he yearned for money to earn
in a scowl 'n frown they turned him down
but he'd left to be 'someone'
his dreams are gone but he still holds on
though he's a little withdrawn
through dusk 'n dawn his heart is strong
and he claims not all is gone
it's just a phase in the games He plays
he's not yet filled to the brim
and then he says any one-of-these-days
providence may think of him
'knows he will be great if it's in his fate
he's not looking to escape
he says he'll wait and it's never too late
to give your dreams a shape
till then he's glad that it's not too bad
though he has no roof or rafter
he's half unclad and they call him mad
but he still has room for laughter
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Flailing waves on wailing caves and open sores
Drunken moats of sunken boats and stevedores
Fearsome crocks of bird flocks and old lore’s
Silence amidst the deafening roars…
Rending seas, bending trees and blowing spores
Lark flights through dark nights on stormy shores
In the cold box of old clocks and undone chores
Time keeps waiting to settle scores…
Moans hush and foams rush like greasy whores
The sea settles in tea kettles and gently snores
In rude knocks on wood docks and old doors
Night comes crawling on all fours….
Am I this moment’s or forevermore’s?
Do I let go of oars?
Friday, June 09, 2006
When his gin-bottle was half-drunk, as was he
The man started narrating the tavern travesty
He flicked his cigarette and cleared his throat
Scratched his beard and unbuttoned his coat
As he stared into his glass and twirled the ice
He said he'll tell me a story, “It’s sad but nice”
Then gravely cupped his hand about his chin
And looked into the distance, as I said “Begin”
“Across the street, he said, it's a bit less elite
On that side of town, in a long winding street
There is a tavern where some old men meet
Clink their glasses, unwind and feel complete
And idly banter about birth and life and death
Slurred and stuttered in one indifferent breath
Smelling of tobacco, and some piffling dreads
They sit; a huddle of old coats, balding heads
They blow the dust off some blinking memory
And hold it up in the light for every one to see
By turns they touch and feel it and remember
The moment long lost in a cold old November
Hoary memoirs; obscure, impure and insecure
Grow with the night and become more unsure
As their musty rusty camaraderie soaks in gin
In cheap laughter the misery spreads out thin
In rowdy chatter, the grief’s ground down fine
Mixed and drunk neat in sloppy gulps of wine
Some feel it is benign, some call it clandestine
Most loosen up their worries, smile and resign
They scrape off worries the day had accrued
The deepest fears are shamelessly laid nude
On the table, as they sit and sip their solitude
And share their memories; tattered, mildewed
They drink in the uncommon, unhurried leisure
And moments of precarious, vicarious pleasure
No boasts about making money, or love or sex
Little talk of career and less of future prospects
They have grown older than jobs and Mondays
They can uselessly talk ‘bout the good old days
Now there is a lot less than enough to get done
In the shadow of a lazy hazy mellow yellow sun
One of these men has been the epitome of folly
He was emotional but he was pleasant and jolly
There was the girl he loved, way back in school
Who thought him cute-ish, but called him a fool
She married for money, he gradually grew grim
And she lay on her lone bed and thought of him
"Nice days", he says, "...that I finally left behind"
"Ne'er change my feeling but changed my mind"
There's one in the brown coat who's now senile
And rants all the time about some goddamn file
How he lost his job, and how it was not his fault
And that it was not him who locked up the vault
The men ignore him mostly, and he bangs a fist
Every few minutes and loudly proclaims “I exist”
They can see that he's wronged and he's alone
But you see they all have problems of their own
Four of them sit grumbling; they made the band
“The old stuff was music; this new stuff's bland”
“Let’s get together again, you can play the bass”
“Shut up” says that one; looks away in the haze
“What the...” but another guy squeezes his knee
“Can’t play anymore, bad accident…Let him be”
They all remember their shows in cheap hotels
And sit silently, hesitantly asking “And what else”
About early morning the conversation dies down
The heroes of the night sit silent, sigh and frown
The stories overheard are now over-over-heard
Lot of the regulars remember almost every word
The tavern falls silent, just cough, shifting chairs
The odd rubbing of hands, the saying of prayers
The gathering grows restless, grunts and heaves
Checks its watches and says its “I-must-leave”-s
They shuffle out by eleven, tired and bleary-eyed
And set their watches to the one hanging outside
Then they start a life as usual, worry about it lots
Walking back, they often stumble on the thoughts
Shake up from their reveries and suddenly realise
That they were dreaming and they wipe their eyes
They take a look around, and slowly comprehend
Just around this bend, the dream is about to end
Then till the next night, this old tavern disappears
And starts’ appearing again as the evening nears
The old men who get swallowed in the city lanes
Surface again in the evening like forgotten stains
It’s got people worried; they now lock their doors
It’s evil wind they say – chemicals, pollen, spores
They say it is strange; insomnia that strikes at ten
But that’s not the story of these sleepwalking men”
He shrugged his shoulders, creaking and hoary
And smiled at me and asked, “How’s the story?”
I said I didn’t know; it was interesting no doubt
He just nodded and said, “Give it some thought”
He then looked at his watch and said, “It’s ten”
“So long young man, we’ll meet, wonder when”
Then I asked him if it was true, and he told me
“Maybe yes, and maybe no, and maybe maybe”
The Moment comes a while after the sunset. Sometimes in winters, it can even happen before the sunset. It is when light gives up. It suddenly realises that it is futile to fight the growing dark. It loses faith on itself, and begins to die. When you are watching a sunset, you'll never realise that it is happening. Suddenly a bird call, or the darkening eastern sky, or the honk of a truck passing by on the road…something will distract you, and when you look back again at the sunset, it would have already lost. After the moment, death happens quickly - a matter of moments. Before the moment, it is beautiful and it has something of the permanent about it. After it, it is fast and painless. But right on the moment, though I’ve never seen it, I’m sure it is sad and painful.
The Moment happens to people as well, and to animals too, and to other things, to life and so on. When my grandmother fell ill; her condition worsened and had all of us counting days. But this was when we were looking. She then improved slightly, had us looking away for the moment, and she slipped away. When we looked again she had lost. The same happened with Zarah, the German shepherd the Chatterjee family owned. It also had us believing it would finally make it through as it had a lot of times earlier in its old life. And we had looked away for that one moment. That night I had not slept beside her.
And that makes me wonder about her. Was it because I had looked away? There was this weird feeling I used to get after she left. The word closest to that is guilt. I have no idea why I felt that. I know I could not have helped it. But would it have changed things if I had been there then?
One day I'll stare at the sun for an answer. Even if the world ends all around me, I'll just keep staring straight at the sun, and the dusk after that. I'll not look away even for a second. I'll see if I can stop the moment. I'll hold on with all my strength. I know it is useless, but I only want to know if I could have held on to you, and for how long. If the night still falls, I would have lost this little battle with the dark. But then I want to feel helpless about your leaving, not guilty.
It burst around me suddenly that day, as I was on my way back from office. The rain poured down on all sides, slithered against the moss coated walls and fell in big heaps at the feet of these houses that pushed it all on the road. The uncaring water came gurgling, tumbling along in splashes as it met the water from the other side of the road in a swirl, and then the water from the other lane a little further down.
It is possible to enjoy the rain, yes. But only when one is not wearing formals he plans to repeat the next day and not carrying an expensive company laptop to be returned next morning. I ran down the street looking for shelter, people familiar with the lane had the obvious shelters reserved and packed in dripping elbow-to-rib, vegetable basket-to-briefcase camaraderie. I ran further into the dark street.
There was this house that invited me in at first glance, with a kind of cement awning over the small grotto of an entrance. I ran in and stood trying to catch my breath, as I stood bent so that the cold wet shirt hung away from my chest. I kept my things on the floor and turned to look at the rain. The rain was different now that I was out of its direct rage, and looked prettier. An odd adventurer or two ran across in sporadic sprints as people weighed probabilities of the rain stopping against the urgency of their chore. I wasn’t in a hurry. People back in my house knew that summer trainings may take time getting over and there were other younger cousins at home they’d worry about more. I took my time wringing out water from my hair with the handkerchief. The rain had not lessened.
It was an uncertain, stifled cough.
Startled, I turned around. Shit! Was there a stray animal in here? Had the owner of the house come? Was my shelter about to be taken away? I turned to find only a small girl I had not noticed before, standing in the same state as me. Relief!
It was the expression that I noticed first. She must have been around 16, a tuition bag hugged against her, a couple of loose tendrils of curly hair hung over a pair of scared eyes.
Scared is perhaps not the word. She must have been hoping I don't notice her. Now she stood all squeezed into a corner, gulping down her terror. Terrified? Of me? That is not how is usually is with people and me. I was perplexed. For a long, excruciating moment, we stood looking at each other through bated breath, confusion, cold sweat and rain. Then suddenly I figured it out. I was male. And suddenly that primordial fright, the terror, all fell into place.
Suddenly I was in her shoes. I could imagine all she must have been told about me, the unknown male on the street. One, who would take advantage of the fact that she is a woman, and young and not as strong; who would just show her she was weak, break her ego, shatter her in these little mean ways, and feel good about it. And I realised in that cramped space, there was a chasm I could not cross.
I stepped outside and walked away. The rain was different again now. Not pretty anymore. I had just paid for those of my gender she had met or heard about. I felt guilty for some vague reason. I wished I could undo some stupid generations and start all over again.
I stopped near the corner. I could still see the entrance to the house. The least I could do was ensure no other man walked into that place. I decided to wait till the rain stopped. The rain didn't stop for a long time. Guilty streams flowed around my shoes… slow and thick and brown.