THAT SMOKY EYED GIRL
--- by Anjali Deshpande
She hasn’t come in now for a few days, that smoky eyed girl. Oh, okay, woman, if you insist. Or citizens if you are too academically republican. For me she is a girl, the kind who stuns you with her distinctive beauty. The sharp edges of the clear cut jaw that reach her ears, the half moon of her forehead, the grayish ashy pupils lurking under the straight eyebrows, the slender frame, the conventional haircut, parted on the left and pushed behind the ears, the deep cut blouses with no hint or promise of anything vulgarly luscious under them, the lips almost a straight line, with a clandestine curve that physicists claim to have discovered as the curve of light in space, no swelling at the centre point of the upper lip, no fleshiness on the lower one, no obscenity of voluptuousness. A slender austere beauty. A self-contained girl, the monad of Leibniz, eternal, perfect, she is not a sum of her parts and yet each part has a personality of its own. When she lowers her eyelids, the crescent sickles of eyelashes above her delicate cheekbones underline the iciness of her smoky eyes. There is coolness in them, the kind that comes with experience when all the shouldering is done. I wait for her. I know she will come, she does not stay away for over a week.
Her complexion is that of the thinnest layer of snow on the earth, the mud underneath turning it translucent. That makes her an earthling, this sprite who should have inhabited the rarefied atmosphere of the stratosphere but who, it seemed to me, had descended on the earth as a favor to me and other undeserving people who take little sips of her beauty in this fashionably ill lit room.
I am looking to wallow in that mud under the ice, disturb the mire and hunt out the bodies of slugs buried underneath, dead slugs and spent shells of her experience the only thing that could account for the smoky opacity of her eyes.
I can see the long winding road she has travelled and her story, her biography….the same story that every attractive woman in this world of professionals has. Bosses laying their drolly hands on shoulders, the casual brushing past of colleagues against the taut breasts with whispered apologies ready on the lips before the step is taken, the abrasive touch of the male thigh under the table and the look, that male look, that packs in the slurp and the smack.
I can also see the jealous tongues of women and men, the men crediting every success to the twin domes under her throat and women denying the existence of the dome above the eyebrows. The innuendos, the insinuations, the whispers, and caught alone in the web I see her struggling and managing a toe grip on the slippery wall of success… which woman does not have that story? That one story of the man and his eyes and the thingummy between his legs and the woman and her compulsions to compromise. I have heard so many of them I can finish any story any woman begins today. I am sure she has one too, perhaps even one too many being what she is and in the field she works in. Publicity. Media. Models. Shoots. On the outskirts of glamour. Where everything is short lived therefore exaggerated and overdone, or perhaps overdone therefore short lived. Looks, makeup, jingles, praises, the working hours, the praises, the criticisms, the condemnations, all overdone…….and so short lived, the makeup, the skin quality, the fame.
I know all of it. Yet I want to hear of them from those thin pinkish lips. Unearth the corpses of betrayals, backstabbing, envy driven insinuations and innuendoes, cremated there on her way up that accounts for the ash heaped on those pupils. Those forgotten episodes of bosses demanding she shed clothes in the circlet of their vulgar arms. The favors they demanded of those lips and that slender form. I want to dig out all those bad things and worse things that have stirred in the bitter chocolate of experience in her personality. Those things that have turned her into the cool cold queen of this place.
I want to excavate those dead bodies, wrench out the detritus of the past from the gutters of her personality and turn them into veins again, make her eyes smolder, blow out the ash, and make her face ruddy and yet it was the ash that attracted me. I wondered at this strange nature of attraction that wants to slaughter the very thing it finds attractive. Wilde was right, damn him, yes, each man kills the thing he loves… Perhaps changing is the only way to stamp ownership and the minute she grants me the right to make love to her, I must change her to make her my own fully, to imprint on her the signs of my proprietorship. I knew not why I wanted to interfere and change her into something that had not drawn me in the first place, but I am so full of contradictory sentiments nowadays, I sometimes stop bothering about them. I want to gaze upon her from some distance and crush her to me at the same moment. Sometimes I distrusted the violence of my emotion so much that the moment she entered the club room I would get up and go away and come back only after I had wrangled some control over them, all the time hating my passions that deprived me of precious minutes of her nearness, of the intoxicating sight she was.
She always came in to sit at any of the tables and order the same thing. The same thing every time. Yet the waiter went through the ritual of asking her what she wanted and waited for the lids to rise from the smoky pupils and the lips to part and the order to be repeated. Her voice was sharp and firm like the lines of her frame. Pointed. Straight. Firm. Confident. Perhaps the waiter was as fascinated by her as I was. Perhaps that made him ask her every time she came in knowing what she would ask for. Perhaps it was his job and he had to ask. But I thought he came to get a bite of her before serving her and slowly anger began to build up in me against the waiter’s privilege, his abuse of his duties for self-satisfaction.
She rarely talked to anyone and every time she did she belied the common perception that beautiful women have no reason to cultivate the brain.
I watched her like a hawk watching its morsel before swooping. The chase is the best part of any romance. I am sure all predator birds know this. That is why perhaps they circle so high above their prey, keeping an eye, watching every move and lazily soaring past. When the wings are spread, the air whooshes past the open feathers of the wingspan and the head spins in the rarefied atmosphere, yes that giddiness is more enjoyable than the actual eating of the prey. After the swoop, the clutching of the prey takes up all the energy, the clutching and the eating. I know this. I waited. I waited in agonized suspense.
I found out about her. What she did, where she lived, this ice queen of the place. It was not tough, in fact it was so easy it ended almost before it began. Even then, the day I decided to make her acquaintance my heart came and sat in my throat. I knew talking would be tough. I would be hoarse with desire and would repulse her. I had to make my move and I did. The blood burned hot in my veins that cold winter evening when it rained outside and she came in and swung her head on her slender neck to shake off the few droplets of rain on her hair and stood looking around near a table next to mine. I smiled at her. She looked at me. She had of course seen me here before, so she simply turned her eyes towards me. A ray of recognition shot out from her eyes and hit me. I felt hot at the thought that my face had registered under the ash on her pupils, that she had acknowledged my existence. Oh, did I exist before this moment? Or had my wandering soul just at that moment entered a body to make me tingle with life? My tongue felt dry.
She sat down at my table.
‘Terrible evening,’ I pushed out the words from the parched lips. ‘An evening for a hot toddy.’ There. I had dared. She nodded.
The waiter came. He greeted me with a smile and then bowed slightly to her so that he could keep his eyes on her. Bastard. I waited to see if she ordered the hot toddy. She told him languidly, almost indifferently, ‘Gin and lime please.’
I asked for the hot toddy. My veins needed it— the hot rum and spices—to cool me nerves.
Shalini, that is her name. Shalini, the decent one. What a decent name for such an obscene beauty. How disappointing an appellate for an indecently beautiful woman. She should have had an uncommon name, something potent like Madalasa. Yes, Madalsa, I tasted the word on my tongue, and its meaning burnt my throat, the intoxicated one, no, no, one lethargic with intoxication. Ah, that would have suited her. I could have lived even with Gazalla, that does not suggest the headiness of her presence but at least would have suited her supple form and her mysterious eyes with their long lashes.
She had begun as a copywriter and had soon separated from her employer to set up her own little agency. She had hired old and retired designers and visited the clients of her old company seeking work and references.
‘I never offered to do the work my old company did at half rates. Some people I know have done this. Undercut their old employers to establish themselves. My employer, he was an old man with a small company. I liked him. He liked me. He even helped me.’
A flare lit my eyes. ‘Dirty old men! I know the type. You know, when they help you, there is always some motive.’
She shook her slender neck in denial. ‘The old employer, he is like a father to me. He is also a friend of my father. He even helped me set up shop. We are still in touch. I like him.’
She told me the story spread out like an appliqué sheet, stitching one piece on it of an evening, another piece some afternoon, separated by many absences. And still the fabric came together in my shaky hands for I held out my curiosity like the lining of a jewel box and waited for the next gem to fall in. So little I knew of her and so much I wanted to know that all my senses were lined up for any bits that fell from her lips. I discovered that she did not like chicken, that she read detective novels and Rex Stout was her absolute favourite. The next day I went looking for his novels in the bookshops of Connaught Place and could not find any. She told me later that he was an American writer and few people read him here but his characters were quirky and she loved that.
She had divorced a husband six years after marriage and had no children.
‘It is only when I began living alone that I discovered what liberty means,’ she said. ‘Can’t compromise it now, never. No men for me, don’t really like them,’ she said with a slow sanguine smile when I asked her about lovers.
My mouth was full of drool. I swallowed and the sides of my mouth hurt with the effort. I nodded foolishly. I had begun nodding at her words like that a lot.
Her ad company had done quite well. She had some prestigious clients, nobody very big, but big enough. Real estate developers from two neighboring states where erstwhile nawabs and big landlords were trying to save their massive properties by cutting deals with condominium builders were the mainstay of her company. These people had miles of land and were desperate to hold the land ceiling law at bay. Some of them had turned land developers themselves. They were carving up their huge landmasses into mini farms or erecting apartment complexes with parks and hospitals and shopping complexes, for sale.
‘There is this big, big landlord,’ she told me in her unhurried way one afternoon. ‘He is soooo attached to his land that he got a license, he got zoning permission and everything. Then he built four high rise apartment complexes. Sold all the flats. Made a tidy profit. And guess what? He built himself a bungalow on a two acre plot bang in the middle of these tall buildings. Lives there. Just likes to think all the land is still his and the apartment owners are like his tenants!’
I thought she would throw back her head and laugh but the laughter only touched the corners of her lips. There was a flash of some teeth and then those lips closed again. Perhaps she had laughed many times on this man.
‘Sometimes these people don’t pay or pay half of what they promise, but it is all right. It is the way of business,’ she said. ‘There are always some bad debts.’
I was surprised to see that hard financial sense made the bedrock of her delicate personality. The clear sharp lines of her jaw did not seem out of place when I learnt about it. I wondered if she had cultivated that slow unenergetic manner for long months, practicing before a mirror to help her deal with the vultures who circled over the horizon of her world of financial investors and political bribers. They did not seem to bother her.
She talked a lot about her work and her career path. She had been lucky, branched out on her own in the boom time of the nineties but things had changed now. Large ad companies were now the rule. They came in to mop up all the smaller players. She would have to sell. She was losing clients. The larger companies were offering them services that earlier they would have considered beneath their dignity, and at lower rates too.
It took her three months to come to my house. Not that she did not want to, she always said she wanted to but I could see she made hardly any effort to prove she wanted to. She was just too busy. She was under tremendous pressure. Many large companies, so she told me, had entered the advertising field. She had to put in double the effort to get half the work from the market.
‘Not because I am a woman, no, you understand? In fact in this field, women are at an advantage.’
My heart pushed blood with great viciousness at these words. I felt its fury in my pulse and looked away. ‘This is the kind of thing that makes me angry,’ I said.
She looked at me with those steady smoky eyes of hers and I looked deep for a comment under those ashes. I found none. No answering flame of anger met my fury. Was she as disgusted as me at the ways of the world but was loath to show it? I don’t know.
Spring has arrived. There is something in the season, something really exhilarating, it is not something that poets have dreamt up in their flights of fancy. These radio announcers with their half Hindi half English lines and both incorrect are still talking of the yellow flowers of mustard. You don’t see a single spray of mustard in bloom anywhere from here to Gurgaon or Noida. Sometimes you find them lying flat on their wilted faces on the carts of vegetable sellers. They make me so angry. I want to listen to something really poetic about spring when the Coral tree beckons with its blazing fingers, Palash set the Buddha Jayanti Park ablaze and the nude trees of the Kachnar declare freedom from all restraints. Heavy woolens are off the shoulders. This is the season to shed all prudence, to let go. There truly is something in the spring. No sweat, no rank odour of perspiration. This is the season for indulgence. No wonder Shiva woke up from his penance for his cosmic intercourse.
Her coats and pullovers are gone and her shawls are now light like the wings of butterflies.
‘The season has changed,’ she said to me. ‘The season of the small entrepreneur, the bit player, small business, small factories, small ad companies, is over,’ she said.
Does the market decide everything, even the change in season? It felt odd to hear her talk like that. Her time is over? Only because the market is a bit crowded?
‘Which industrialist sold daal chawal earlier, tell me? Now multinationals want to do it. Same with us, big players are grabbing up small clients too. And frankly the small clients are being wiped off the market. It is one long food chain out there and the smaller prey is losing out.’
‘How ghastly, times are truly bad,’ I said looking for a foothold in her life.
‘I dealt with these sharks. That was not so tough. I planned their campaigns and held large conferences of such people in hotels and sold many of their farmhouses and apartments. That was not tough. This is tough,’ she told me.
She would have to sell out. She would not make a loss. She would make a tidy sum but it was not the prospect of loss that worried her. She was scared of being out of work.
That was another thing I learnt about her. She was addicted to work. She disliked holidays. She did not understand why people went out and slept on beaches and gawked at ruins. She herself made some trips out of town when work demanded and there had been plenty. What would she do after she sold the company? She was mulling over opening an NGO. Teach children may be or start a self-help group for women in one of the slums. She was also looking for funds.
I finally found an opening. I have a small NGO, registered some years back. I don’t get much work but I regularly file returns too. I told her about it. About how my NGO is old enough to have got clearance to get foreign funds and I could help her. She smiled. Her first smile at me. Not the surfacial smile that she gave to everyone. It was indescribable. Her lashes rose, the cornea flashed white and such a brilliant beam of light shone from under the gray film of ash on her pupils I gasped.
Again, I asked her home. She was too busy. Scouting prospective buyers for her business and the small shop she had bought to set her business in, as her office. She also had to take care of her employees, six of them, who were like an extended family and whom she had clearly told her plans and asked to look for other jobs if they were not willing to be transferred to the buyer. She must have work too.
My house was far, too far for her to come. I live in the eastern part, derogatorily referred to as ‘across the river’. A place to which auto rickshaws want to go at shift-ending time when they are headed home. In a place where the news of microbes living and multiplying with abandon in open drains flowing with the outcome of the millions of bowels of the city’s population rides on the putrid air with its scant oxygen. It is a daily reminder of how crowded the city is. A place where I can never pretend that the city has fewer people than it actually has like the luckier ones in the central Lutyen’s parts can. My apartment stands in a row of tall rectangular erections, differentiated from other buildings only by the color of the outer walls. All apartments stand like walls around their narrow inner courtyards, and in that well we can see people floating around, small and big, with fretful faces.
All around me are people who had saved and scrimped to buy a flat here and who continually rue the fact that they had neglected to buy one in Malviya Nagar and Shekh Sarai when properties were cheap because they were too ‘high minded’ as my neighbour once told me, to think of properties and such mundane things. They were then too busy teaching and learning in those bygone times when property prices were low and their salaries even lower. Then they had thought owning property was a cheapie thing to do. They did not have the time or the inclination to fill up forms and wait in the queues to check if they would win the lottery of housing that the city’s public sector developer allotted in three neat categories, high income, middle income, low income, directly proportional to the number of bedrooms you had, three for high income, two for the middle ones……the house told you the income bracket. A capitalistic version of graded egalitarianism for which ill-educated journalists use the misnomer of socialism. Now they, the best of the denizens of the city, for that is what they claim to be, are forced to breathe in the poisonous fumes of the city that grew around them with scarcely a thought to spare for what they said or did.
I told her all this, making her smile. Her chest rose a little, the lips parted. That is when I realized this is as far as her laughter will go. Sometimes a laugh rose inside her and shook her breast a little and hesitated in her chest but never crossed her throat to push apart the thin line of her lips. I had described my area with a hefty dose of contemptuous humour only to make her smile and had hoped it would make her want to see the place not realizing that I had made the place too unappetizing to make anyone want to come there.
‘When you sell your shop may be you should buy a flat somewhere near my place. It is still reasonable. Can be a good investment,’ I told her one afternoon.
She nodded and emptied her gin and lime. She was just too busy, she came here two times a week to unwind, to drink her gin and push back home in the fashionably narrow laned southern area with little water and less parking space.
I decided to ignore her a little. Maybe then, just maybe, she would realize the value of my adulation. I managed with great difficulty. Once I even got up a minute after she arrived telling her I had to go somewhere. I went and sat outside in a dark corner of the bus stop across the road, my heart unable to beat, my breath heavy, for the opportunity I was losing of gazing on that face with its curtain of hair that swayed with every movement of her slender neck. I waited for one glimpse of her as she left and I got that glimpse nearly two hours later. That night I ate nothing. I drank myself to sleep and was sick in the morning.
Then my daughter came home from Mumbai, for a week. She spent little time with me, but wanted me to be around whenever she came home. Daughters! All our feminist slogans have simply slided off their restless heads. We argued hard and risked relationships for the freedom that they simply take as given and want more. She truly enjoyed the freedom I had earned. Got up late, made up her face, never her bed, dressed in day before yesterday’s clothes, got in and out of the house one hand stuck to the ear with her mobile phone and the eyes riveted on her laptop screen. I wonder if she ever saw me clearly. She did not talk to me in complete sentences. Only threw some exclamation marks at me with her bony fingers sometimes two or three of them stuck inside the same monstrous ring. She munched on apples. At least she had learnt to eat some fruits. I spent so much time in the kitchen, I even forgot Shalini for a while. One day frying plump filets of surmai I shook my head in disbelief. I had not thought of her even once that day. I changed into my going out clothes, combed my hair, shoved the fish in the fridge and leaving a note for my daughter, rushed to the club. She was not there.
It was after that, after my daughter had left, with half the contents of my bank account and trinket box that she came home for an hour. She had thought I had been unwell, but she had not called to check. I was too pleased at the pretended interest to complain that her concern seemed only like a polite fib to me.
She had come to look at some apartments. My idea of buying a flat here while they were going cheap had appealed to her. She nibbled at the shami kabab I had ordered from a take-away nearby, the dark sickles of eyelashes on her cheekbones slashing at my consciousness. I held her hand absentmindedly, oh the pain of that acting, as I told her about my life, about my dull job as a banker, cribbed a little about my adopted daughter and how she was so self-centered even though she was now learning to become a social worker in a college in Mumbai.
‘In my time you became a social worker without any training. You wanted to work for people, you went out and worked for them and learnt what to do. Now they teach you all that in college and make a lot of money teaching it,’ I told her. I had registered that NGO for this very daughter.
She came again after two weeks. That day the papers carried a front page news about arguments on a petition filed in the High Court against a law that made same sex love illegal. I asked her what she thought of it.
‘Love can’t be outlawed,’ she said. ‘It is a feeling. How can law prevent a feeling or hold you accountable for it?’
I looked at her closely. Did she even read the newspapers properly? Of course the law cannot outlaw love, it cannot outlaw feeling, only its expression.
‘Shall we smoke?’ I asked her. I wanted to fill smoke in my lungs.
‘If you have a cigarette,’ she said. As matter of fact as ever. Did she not see the tremor in my hands? The hunger in my eyes? I had one in my drawer. Only one. Of the brand Shalini sometimes smoked. Bought months ago and stored in anticipation of such a day. I fished it out.
‘I wish there were two, I would have smoked a stick of peace with you,’ I said.
‘Let us share,’ she said simply. Matter of fact. So is love, only a matter of fact. Or feeling.
Yes, share. Let us share. A stick between our lips and soon there will be none. I laughed at the image. Shalini looked up at me not disturbing the arrangement of her eyebrows or her eyelashes and yet a question, a faint one in the bend of her neck. How did she do it?
She left the stub behind when she left. The stub of the cigarette with an interrupted ring of pink lipstick on its yellow filter. I kissed it holding the pink ring between my lips, pressing my lips on it. Then I opened my lips and stood before the mirror and examined them closely, my glasses freshly cleaned, the bright light behind the mirror on and sparkling on my brown face. I looked for a hint of pink on the inside of my lips. There was a fleck, or was it just a trick of the light? I licked it. Stuck my tongue out. Was there that pink of the fairy who had wafted in and out of my door turning my blood to water and reducing my desire to just a feeling the expression of which is outlawed? Just a feeling. When would I dare express it? Love cannot be outlawed.
It was the third time she came that I lost my head. Completely. It was a hot and dry day crackling with dust. The earth stood still and even the wind had gone to sleep. A lifeless day. We had spent an awful afternoon going up and down elevators looking at flats, some empty, some with sulking tenants. By the time we got to my flat we were burnt all over. I switched on the air conditioner in my bedroom, I have none in the sitting room, and we sat there.
‘I feel like a wine,’ she said and smiled her languid smile. I had gin. No wine. Never knew she would feel like drinking something else. It must be the weather. But yes, there was beer. She lifted her shoulders in an assenting shrug.
Suddenly it hit me. She is about to break her rule. So it has arrived, the moment I have been waiting for, the time to break rules, the time to throw restraint out in the hot air, the day of abandon. Yes, Rati, that carefree goddess of love, she speaks through these thin lips. Beer. She will have beer. I wish I had wine— dry crackling faintly coloured wine that could be poured out in goblets to release fire in her cool cool veins.
Instead I poured out the beer and watched her avidly, hungrily, as she dipped those lips, in the froth and tilted the tall glass to get to the amber liquid below. I watched her, keeping my head turned a little, looking at her from the corner of my eyes, to keep the hunger in them hidden.
A spasm of desire shook me and I got up from the chair to work it out of my body. I wanted to enjoy it, this feeling of desire radiating from my heart to the farthest part of my body. But I was too afraid to let it deepen. I began walking around the room, not letting it deepen. And all the while I watched, the small sips of amber liquid she took. I lifted my glass and emptied half its contents at one go. The cool liquid lit my throat. The heat began to build up as the fuel touched the flame inside. I gulped down my drink and popping another bottle open poured myself another.
‘Have some more, I have another bottle in the fridge,’ I told her.
She shook her head. ‘In this weather if you have beer you have to sleep afterwards or it gives you a headache.’
Great. Wonderful. I can die today.
‘You can sleep it out here,’ I told her. ‘Spend the night here.’
‘No, I must go soon. But I am a bit tired,’ she said.
‘Come on, make yourself home. Get onto the bed,’ I said to her and nearly pushed her out of the chair. I must have been rough for she gave me a strange look. She got up, walked very slowly to the bed as and sat down on the edge and smoothed her hair making no move to lie down.
I sat down at the other end and stretched out laying my head in her lap and felt the slight shrinking of her muscles. That ripple of movement rocked my head.
‘May I?’ I asked. But even I could not make out my words. My voice was thick. She must have thought it was the beer but I knew what it was. I turned my head and buried it between her thighs breathing her through her thin clothes.
Shalini made as if to get off the bed.
‘You lie down properly…do’ she said to me and pulled herself from beneath my head. I took the invitation, rolled over and reaching out to her arm I pulled her down next to me. My hand moved up that slender frame, under her thin top and up to her throat. I pulled her down and hugged her close.
‘I love you, I love you,’ I said and pressed my lips on her neck. How slender she was, I could find her shrinking against my body, melting into it. My lips slid up her throat and my tongue tasted the salt on it. Her straight hair was now as disordered as my emotions. The ridges of her spine hurt my fingers as they gathered her close. How cool she was, cool to my lips and my breast. I pushed her down onto the bed and stretched over her like an awning. I wanted to look in those eyes as my fingers uncovered her shoulders. She had them shut tight. Her long lashes quivered on those firm cheekbones. I slumped on her crushing my lips on those thin pink lines and tried to open them with my tongue. She was truly playing hard to get. The seducer.
Sometimes they simply do not want to admit that they are attracted. They are confused. They are ashamed. I can strip her of all those layers of shame and uncertainty. I can even keep it confidential. A secret just between us. I would not let even the look in my eyes get out of this room. Nobody would know, there was no need for anyone to know.
She squirmed and got out of my grip turning on her side. Her chest, her face, her eyes, all of them escaped my hungry clutch. I fell towards her back and hugged her from behind. She was trying to pry my arms lose. I crushed her to me. Her small round hips sank into my abdomen. Then she bent a little, pushing herself inside my throbbing body, like a crescent cocooned in my protective grip. Ah, so she was coming around. Bending to the rising crescendo of desire inside her. A response, an echo to my call. My hot breath felt smelly to me as it hit her back and recoiled on me. I relaxed my grip. It was then that I felt her lips, dry and irascible on the back of my palm. I relaxed a little more, her lips parted and she took my thumb in her mouth. What would I not give to see her do that, but here I was behind her and my eyes stuck to the depression in her back just below the shoulder collar bones and her mouth was on my thumb. A shudder shook me and suddenly a sharp stab of pain made me jump. I turned on my back and pulled in my hand. She had sunk her teeth in the joint of my thumb. I thought it had been taken off the hinges, it had been cleaved into two. But I could see it still attached to my hand as I pushed it between my knees. The shock peeled off the numbness from my brain. One minute my thumb was senseless and felt fluid as if it had turned to water and the next minute it had woken up. There was a ball of pain where the thumb had been. I screamed loud and pressed it between my knees but the pain kept coming in waves. Was it bleeding? I may have to go to a hospital to get it stitched. How long I lay there screaming and crying I don’t know.
By the time I recovered my senses and got up to fetch some ice from the fridge for my throbbing appendage it was dark. The main door was open. I closed it and bolted it on automatic. She had left.
I wish I had died then but wishes are seldom fulfilled. My thumb kept waking me up from my fitful sleep. I could not go out. It seemed to me as though people could see the unsatiated hunger in my face and the shame of rejection. I switched off my mobile and threw it somewhere.
From that moment my life got almost freeze dried. It began to resemble the Indian Parliament, staying in suspended animation. Ideas walked out on sentiments, offended sentiments drowned every thought in their pandemonium and both hurled abuses at each other. I ate a little, I lay around and sometimes I roamed around the house like a woman possessed. I also raved a lot taking rounds of the house, hitting the sofa and beating the pillows. The doorbell rang a few times but I did not open the door. Must have been the help. I did not take calls when the landline rang. They were very few anyways. Who remembers or calls on landline numbers nowadays?
I stood in the bathroom and laughed loudly in my face in the mirror. It laughed back at me. I was about to smash that face when the thumb sprang back to life and I was prevented from cutting my hand on broken glass. It occurred to me that she had saved me, with her gift of this throbbing red thumb, she had saved me even as she had given me pain. What is love if it is not pain? It is pain. Through and through.
Then it struck me that she had not called me. My mobile had not rung at all. I began looking for it and could not find it. I dialed the number from my landline but of course it was switched off.
I found it only because I was throwing all the papers and cushions the next day, cowering under the cushion on the sofa. I switched it on and was immediately assailed by messages of missed calls. I checked. There had been three calls from my daughter and two from her! She had called me and my mobile had been hiding? How dare this palm full of plastic come between me and her? Stark raving mad though I was I retained enough sense to not punish it by smashing it on the floor. That was my line with her, a portal through which she would walk in again. She had even perhaps tried to when I was away in my crazy world, ringing the door bell and I, stupid, stupid me, had not opened the door.
I stood under the shower letting the cool water run, gathering the heat of my body, carrying it away from me. What should I do now? Call her back? Or wait for her to call? I was still under the shower when the mobile rang again. I could not hear it at first then the thought struck me that it could be she and got out. Just as well or I would have emptied the overhead tank. Yes it was her.
I inhaled deeply and picked up the phone. ‘hullooooe’, I said. Was I sounding too sweet? I said ‘hullo’ again. Yes, now I sound almost normal.
‘I must meet you,’ she said abruptly. ‘In two hours I will meet you in the park outside your building.’
Ah, the assumption of the beloved that the lover is available. I liked it. I liked the imperiousness. I knew the anger under it. The whiplash of command that comes with the anger of having been denied a caress. I will make amends, my love, I will, not only for that crude embrace but also for not being on call yesterday when you had made the effort to dial my number.
I dressed and I ate a little. I used some perfume. It was hot, but my heart felt cool and light. I glanced at the lighted screen of the mobile phone. It was just after four in the afternoon. She would come around six. It would be warm but the sun would still be a witness to this meeting. Where I come from, we always hold marriages in the day, with the sun as our witness to the union. I, Rajshri, would today be united with my love Shalini with the sun as my witness. And I promise to be gentle with her, to keep my aggression in check.
I took two rounds in the park for impatience had driven me there earlier than the appointed hour. She came at last, late, quite late, to stoke my passion. I saw her enter the gate. I was far away from her. She walked in and the rays from her startlingly dark eyes touched many strangers strolling around. Jealousy spurred me, how could they touch anyone else? I alone am entitled to the glances of those eyes. I rushed towards her. She stepped back.
‘Don’t touch me,’ she said not in her cool lazy voice but in a voice that cracked as she formed the words. A strong breeze set up just then and carried away the sound waves that emanated from those lips.
I nodded, I know not what for.
‘You make me sick,’ she said.
Is that what she had come to tell me?
‘Had it been a man, I would have gone to the police.’
I began to laugh. Her eyes looked too large on her chiseled face. Her lips were moving. I have tasted them, those lips, dry like raw silk. What is there on that lower lip? Looks like a spot of dirt. It is a spot, a red one growing dark with the congealed blood of my love. I have stenciled my name there. With my tooth. I gasped.
She is saying something and here I am, busy drowning in my emotions and the aching want to grab her to me. The jealous breeze is blowing away the words. I push my brain into my ears.
‘Whom, whom can I tell,’ she panted a little.
‘Me, tell me,’ I said.
‘Are you mad?’ she asked me.
How can I describe the power of words. Had she said are you crazy I would have hugged her. Of course, my love, crazy I am. But mad? No, not at all. I know the sexuality of women does not exist legally. It comes into existence only when it is juxtaposed against the desire of a man. Otherwise we don’t exist, my love. She looks like she has discovered some big secret. I want to hug her to me and tell her that it is actually quite a helpful situation. Advantageous to us. I control myself. I should never have imposed knowledge on her like this. I should have wooed her gently with flowers. I want to tell her that, tell her that my love is no longer the aggressive clutch of talons; it has softened. She will know if she lets me touch her. It will be but the brush of a petal on her delicate skin.
She wanted something. I could tell that. Not me, that much was clear. That realization had pierced through the delusionary visions I had had and the desire ridden fog on my brain. The pain in the thumb was now dull.
‘I had come here to slap you,’ she hissed.
So? Do it. Slap me.
‘…even the idea of touching you makes me sick.’
She is walking away. Leaving me behind, forlorn and devastated. She is going away and so fast too. I must catch up with her, beg forgiveness. I want to. I am trying not to run but her strides are so long, each one takes her away from me. Some people have stopped and are staring at me. Was she screaming earlier? Did they hear her?
All of a sudden she turned and marched towards me. Her face is still flushed. It takes time, it does, to accept a love you have been told is unnatural. She is coming back to me. I stop running. My panting has begun to hurt my chest.
‘How did you dare? How? How did you touch me?’ she is screaming as if her lungs are bursting and she must push out the words before they explode. ‘Did I ask you to? Did I say I wanted you to? How did you dare, tell me, tell me…’
More people have stopped. Some are walking towards us.
I recover my senses. I have to. For it is obvious she won’t.
‘Relax, cool down,’ I begin.
‘I won’t, I will scream, I will…’
‘..people can hear…’
‘Let them. Wait, let me tell them. Let them know the kind of randy old bitch you are. Let them know…’
I must leave. I must turn and go out the other gate, away from her, away from this gathering crowd. I can only hear her scream now, I can’t make out the words. I am almost limping under the onslaught of her anger.
Then she stopped screaming. I turned to look at her. She is taking deep breaths and turns to leave then once again she whirled around.
‘I hope your daughter is safe. Do you try to rape her too?’
I heard a hiss of laughter, a laughter that won’t be prevented from breaking the barriers of pretended politeness and whooshes out reeking of putrid prejudice. A woman placed her hands on her ears and says, ‘tauba, tauba...’
My face must have shown something to her, shame or the crumbling of my rigidly held composure. Something that was not me, not the me she had known.
Shalini smiled at me.
‘I am going to type out the incident and say that other girls be warned. I shall name you. I won’t sign it. I shall paste this notice in the club, on the notice board.’
She then threw a glance at me that felt like she had spat at me.
I knew then she would do it. Her eyes were again full of smoke. She walked out of the park gate and into a waiting auto rickshaw.
I have replayed the scene again and again in my mind. What else is there left for me to do? Will she live up to her threat? For all I know she may have already done it. I cannot go and check. I can’t call a friend to check. Has she done it? Then it occurred to me that she could have done it without telling me. That way I would have walked into the club to find the knowledge and the condemnation in people’s faces and my humiliation would have been complete. Why then did she come to tell me? To warn me?
I have thought and thought and thought for that is all that is left to me now. I will never know for sure but perhaps she told me because she was seeking justice, not retribution. She is truly a better woman than I am. Retribution would have tied her to me. Justice sets her free.
I don’t go to the club anymore.