Short Story ID- 11/2015
Whenever I see a butterfly, or a bee, sucking at a flower, I imagine Annie’s lips and mine hovering, approaching, penetrating into them. False are all the theories of soul and metaphysics; the world is matter, and life is sensation. The purpose, the joy, the fulfillment of existence lies in the union of purush and prakriti – that which desires and that which is desired.
Today I will destroy the crippling shackles of inertia. With one step I will cross the confines of this vast desolation. Thirty-five years I have spent on this earth, only once, and all too briefly, tasting the flesh of that fruit which gave Adam his manhood. The body is the distinction between man and woman; the body is the design of nature and creation; vain is all the universe if a man comes and goes from it without playing his part; without knowing, even, what it is that makes him part of this great play of things.
Marriage I shall propose to Annie, my cousin. The very thought is forbidden by custom, by family, by our own dread of the dream that came to us in sleep. We have grown up together; she calls me bhaiyya, brother; but I know that in our hearts we are in love with one another. Never has she said an indifferent word to me. In all that I have thought and done, she has been my support, my encouragement. She is past the age of thirty now, all these years spent at home, living with her parents. No one has ever heard or spoken of her and another man in the same breath. Chaste, virginal maid is she, determined to stay that way, for a reason no one has been able to fathom. I know it, for I am her faith. She waits for me to do the right thing, the brave and the miraculous thing, out of which the emptiness of her world will begin to fill, with life, with meaning, with the sense of there being something true and meant for oneself in this all-surrounding, strange, spectacle of nothing.
For the past four or five years I have been trying to summon the courage, and to wait for opportunity, to go to her and say the unsayable. Lest I give the impression that I desire her only for fornication, let me make it clear that I expect everything that happens to man when he finds by the grace of god a wife – the ennobling of the mind, the civilised householder’s life, the transcending of self-interest and the doing of what is right – to follow from our marriage. Man, like woman, is born ignorant, as a savage. It is by partaking of the good, the beautiful, the rewarding gifts of life that he discovers and creates all the gods, all the virtues, all the arts and sciences that enable him to live a settled, cultured life. I would have taken to this noble path, gone and asked for Annie’s hand, years ago, had I not been waylaid by the ruinous wish to be a poet. I could not do any of the professions that I took up in an effort to earn my living. All the time my romantic yearning to escape, to somehow save myself from the degrading, life-consuming business of serving the cause of money, drew me away from the world into a hermit’s cave. The poetry I wrote I also kept in this cave, well hidden, so that my poems are not polluted by the eyes of those selfish, scheming people whose very shadow is poison. Now I have my pristine poems and not a penny in my pocket, no job, no prospects of a job, my life still dependent on my parents, my one hope Annie, whose father has some land in his village, which I, if I become his son-in-law, want to till with these idle hands.
A small hut in a village, Annie helping me with the farming, cooking the very crops that I shall grow out of mother earth, this blessed soil surrounded by rivers, land of my forefathers, home of Kanyakubja Brahmins from times immemorial. Our children shall grow up here, the bloodline of a great sage triumphing over all the morbidity that has come into this country, the one country in the world, called India by outsiders, that Brahmins are responsible for. Our children shall grow up to be our assistants, our inheritors. We will also keep cows, and goats perhaps, who will give birth to their own children, and in this way, with the slow, sweet passage of time, our little home will fill up with bustle, will become the centre, the creator, of an entire settlement.
These plans I have prepared, carefully, all possibilities and eventualities already considered. Today they have to be set in motion. Today is the day when the mind is made, when the revelation has come, a sign from heaven to turn the great wheel of the earth in a new, wise, and right direction.
At dawn I woke up today, to my utter surprise, whereupon I thought it best to go to the terrace and say to the morning sun, ‘Long time, no see.’ But when I went to the terrace, there was no sun anywhere. So ignorant I was of the sequence of events at dawn, that I thought if there is light in the sky, there must be the sun somewhere. I kept my eyes to the east and waited, I shifted my weight from one foot to the other and waited, I paced about and looked in every direction, particularly to the west to make sure this wasn’t the day when the sun had taken to a new, revolutionary course.
Each moment I grew annoyed, as if the sun had deceived me, was testing my patience and abusing my hospitality. I wanted to go down to relieve my stomach, to drink tea, or once again go to sleep. It was really a long time, made all the longer by my restlessness, before I saw the anchor of the world, the father of the earth, raise its bald head, a thin slice of an orange, across that vast unimaginable distance that separates us for our own good. It was so low on the horizon that I was looking down at it from my second-floor terrace – of a house that is built on a plain, not on a mountain. Once it appeared, all my unease, my complaints disappeared. I could not take my eyes off it for a full hour. As it rose higher and higher, glowing in an absolutely divine and heartwarming light, I found myself bowing to it, repeatedly, smiling, exchanging thoughts, breathing gusts of nourishing air, feeling blood, warm and swift, surging in my veins. My heart was dancing, my senses were heady. My feet, they felt light as a bird’s. Even without wings I was soaring; even from earth I had risen and was surveying the world from the high throne of heaven.
By the time I came down, my eyes were dry and burning. I fell asleep from exhaustion, woke a couple of hours before noon, and then the time moved in a curious pendulum that oscillated between excitement and languor. I had been inspired by the sun, but I had nothing better to do than compose a poem. It made no difference to my day, brought no sense of a change in fortune. I had no appetite when we sat down for lunch, my parents and I, but then, my mother’s phone rang. It was Aman, Annie’s brother, inviting us to his son’s birthday celebrations in the evening. My mother looked at us to ask if we would go, to which I, in an explosive reaction that sent my father paling into insignificance, replied an emphatic, thunderous Yes!
How slow and fast at the same time the clock is ticking. How long, how soon, before it arrives, my tryst with destiny. I haven’t heard a sound except the pounding of my heart. I have been flitting across the mirror, a will-o’-the-wisp unable to stay in one place or one pose. Each glimpse I see in the mirror is of a person different, who is either me or a stranger.
The hair on my head have long been turning white, but the chin has only recently begun to sprout a silver crop. Of the hair I do not care, and the beard I will shave. What distresses me are the lips, once so soft and rosy pink, which have roughened and blackened from years of smoking. The teeth are even worse, a riot of stains left by paan and gutkha chewing. But even though the left knee has begun to creak, and the back baulks at bending or lifting too much weight, the body is not so old as it is young: the skin still taut, the face still a sight, no flab around the waist, the chest attractively tight.
An hour I have spent bathing, scrubbing and soaping, after which I have been touched only by the most silken of clothes. Light and tiny dabs of perfume – the itra of roses and sandalwood – have scented my wrists, neck, and earlobes. I have run my fingers through my hair to settle them into repose. A handkerchief in one pocket, an almost empty wallet in the other, leather sandals under the feet, and a little cardamom in the mouth – to flavour the breath – I am ready, at least in appearance, to meet my better half.
I know, I know, that I presume in calling her so, but I am doomed otherwise – a prospect I will not acknowledge even if it stares me in the face. If she does not respond with equal enthusiasm to my proposal, if she so much as purses her lips or utters a syllable of refusal, I will at that very moment walk away from the whole of civilisation in the direction of Himalaya. I am not to blame if I am the only son of my parents. And even if I am, I shall do penance, inflict torture upon torture, on this no-good existence.
Come, reader, be with me on this most decisive day of my life. You shall be my witness, but you must swear secrecy, for I have told this truth to none but thee.
The father of Annie’s father is the brother of my mother’s mother. Manusmriti prescribes at least four degrees of separation on the maternal side for a marriage to be considered appropriate. Only two degrees, that is, two generations, separate me and Annie. On her father’s side and on my mother’s side our relatives are the same. Many of them live in our city and would be present at the birthday party. In that crowd it would be difficult to find a place where we could have one-to-one conversation, let alone broach a subject as scandalous as our marriage. I can speak about this some other day, but today I feel that all the planets are in alignment. I may yet be unable to do it; my courage may fail, or she may be so busy as to not get a moment to spare; but god, I need you tonight. This is the first time I have ever asked you for help. One chance, to do or die, you must give me on this very night of Ekadashi, Krishna paksha, Ashwin maas, a time of year considered to be the most inauspicious, as it is the pitra-paksha, the lunar fortnight when you observe solemnities in memory of dead forefathers.
A quarter past eight we reach the house. Lo! there she is, coming out to welcome us. Have I told you how beautiful she is? Her skin is the colour of moon, her hair black and straight until they reach the curve below her waist. Tall, but not too tall, she is broad at hip and broad at breast, but her waist is slender, as if pressed inwards by a potter’s hands who was holding the figure by the middle while it was acquiring shape. Her eyes are large and captivating, like a doe’s, the nose is sharp and prominent, the cheeks, if you place your palms around them, would describe the shape of a lotus that keeps broadening towards the top before curving back in where the forehead begins. The ears small, the chin assertive, the eyebrows thin but luxuriant in the space they occupy. Black are the eyebrows, black are the eyes, black is this night in which she shines resplendent like the moon of the fourteenth night.
“Are there many people inside?” I ask her when I am near her.
She says with a slight shrug, “There are people.”
We walk through the gate, through the courtyard, into the large living-room. There is no wall that separates this room from the lobby and the kitchen across. I can see that the whole house is bustling with people, at least a dozen children the most bustling among them. There are relatives from Annie’s mother’s side, who are not our relatives but we are acquainted with them. There are relatives of Aman’s wife, who is a new addition to our family circle, her son celebrating today his second birthday. There is a cake on the table, there are balloons on the walls, there is communal cooking going on in the kitchen. I meet the people I know, and I ignore the people I do not recognise. I try to stay aloof, but I can’t. There are people here of my age, cousins and cousins of cousins, Aman himself, who considers it his personal duty to attend to me. There is also a friend of Annie who fancies me. She comes and stands in front of me, won’t budge, only talk.
The main event, the cutting of the cake, now takes place. Considerable time is spent in gathering everyone, and in readying cellphone cameras to shoot. That centuries-old rhyme, Happy Birthday To You, is sung with unflagging enthusiasm. Candles blown, clapping over, the cake is evenly distributed and it keeps going around for those who would like another piece of it. Now, dinner has to be served in rounds of its own, the children and the men first, excluding the men who have sneaked away to drink alcohol. Annie has become busy in serving and waiting over those who are eating. I resist all invitations to drink, but then a group comes and drags me to a car outside, in which I am promptly carried away to the nearest liquor shop. An unbridgeable gulf keeping me away from Annie, I consume a couple of drinks, and then a couple more, for they have proved relaxing to my jangling nerves.
Even while I am drinking, I receive a call from my mother who says it is time to head back home. We finish our drinks hurriedly, but we eat our dinner leisurely. There is much chit-chat and uproarious laughter at the dining table, but I prefer to enjoy the heady feeling of Annie serving my meal, cajoling me to eat more, and more, while I keep asking her to sit down and dine alongside. Many guests have left, but many guests still linger. I try to delay my departure by telling my mum that we should wait until the women, our hosts, have eaten. This ruse works; I am able to sit across Annie and watch her eat. She looks loveliest to me when she is eating. I don’t know why, but she does.
There has been no time, no space, to lay at her feet my heart. But I am not panicking. On the contrary, I am smiling from ear to ear. Aman, a cousin of Aman, Annie’s friend, the one who fancies me, and Annie herself have been asking me to stay over so that we can play, as we have done throughout our lives, cards. In a few days it will be Dussehra, official beginning of gambling season. Tonight is the time when everyone is together, tonight is the time when leisure has been earned after a hectic day’s work. Tonight is opportunity, the very one I prayed for.
As has been agreed, by my complicit, rather than explicit, acceptance, I am prevented from leaving when the time comes for me to get into my parents’ car. A proper hullaballoo is raised, requests made, requests conceded after full-throated banter, and I find myself in Annie’s bedroom, three other people apart from Annie here, but Annie and Aman joining us only after all guests have left, the kitchen has been cleaned, and Aman has bid his wife and son goodnight. At half past midnight our gambling begins, the game of cards that we call ‘flesh’, our own refinement of its English, toilet-evoking name, ‘flush’.
It could be the liquor in my veins, which I am finding hard to ignore, or my preoccupation with imagining when and how I will propose to Annie, that I do not realize I have lost everything I had in my wallet. My shock is genuine, it comes across as genuine, and everyone knows, besides, that I am unemployed, devoid of income. I announce that I am quitting the game, but no one lets me. Borrow, borrow, everyone makes the offer, forces on me the debt. I try to play without risk, but that is not my game. I have to bluff, to stake on blind and counter. Unable to do so, like a bird whose wings have been clipped, I grow morose, timid, I can fight no more the liquor now battering at my head like a torrid sea against a dyke. With sudden acceleration, a headache makes its way to all parts of my head. I have to keep closing my eyes. I feel feverish. Tremors run through my body as I try to keep a poker face. Soon, my discomfort is noticed. So powerful is the pain that it is palpable in the air. People are worried. I am given aspirin. The game is wound up and I escorted to the bed in the living room, where, as soon as I lie down, I wish nothing more than for the lights to be switched off.
I am now alone, and I am in torment. One atrocious thought after another rises to my head and beats down upon it with the hammer of Thor. Look at you, you pathetic, diseased, rotting piece of flesh. A bed for the sick, that’s where you belong, your lifebed and deathbed the one and the same. A husband you will be! A father! Annie’s life you will ruin, not satisfied with ruining your parents’. There is not a mouse’s strength in your liver, and you call yourself a man! What did the doctor say when you fell ill with jaundice? ‘You have been drinking for too long and far too much. The liver has gone bust.’ It was not the liquor, let me tell you. It was your liver, cowardly and weak, which was meant to be trampled, by alcohol as by everything in the world. Not even a eunuch you can stand up to; even a dog has more balls than you.
There is still time: you can stop being a burden on the earth. Leave the house of your parents. Let them live and die in peace, for as long as you are in their house, you will only infest it with your plague. Go spend whatever time you have left on this earth as a sadhu, bathing in the rivers of the Himalaya. That alone may cleanse your sins, save your soul from eternal damnation. Give up, for god’s sake, the hare-brained idea of having a wife, and dare you not touch Annie with your lurid fantasies, with your impotent and ugly lust that is the foulest thing that exists, which should be struck, if I had my way, with whiplashes relentless.
I don’t know if this sort of headache is a migraine or just a knot of thoughts that has become a noose. It is suffocating, it is painful, I am in an agony for which a ‘headache’ is certainly not the term. It is the combined weight of a lifetime of failure, of disgrace and disappointment, beating down in one climactic, collective assault. Today is the day when I have finally been crushed. I came here with all the hopes, good spirits, and resolve I could muster. All of it collapsed in what has become my signature act: fantastic plans carefully arranged, over several years, upon the head, then, in one moment, a stumble and a ludicrous fall. First I made a show of my bankruptcy, then a spectacle of my insipidity. A body that is so weak, which becomes paralysed of a sudden, unable to keep even the eyes open, what weakling thoughts, what decrepit wits, must be festering in it.
The night seems to be a nightmare come to life. Even in the darkness I see ghosts walking about. I toss and I turn, I sit up, I lie down. I am thirsting for water, but the feet tremble at the prospect of having to stand. I pull my hair, I press my head; nothing helps, there is no relief.
What hour is this? What dream is this? I feel two hands, soft and angelic, upon my head, pressing it, soothing it as suddenly as they have come. My body shivers with relief, with happiness. It takes me some time to realize that this is happening in real, that the touch is physical, not metaphysical. My hands go up swiftly to my head, to those hands that are giving it such succor as perhaps only children receive from their mother. As soon as I touch those hands, I hear a voice.
“Let me press it for a while. You just try to fall asleep.”
It is Annie, good god! What is she doing here! I remove my hands away from hers and try to turn towards her, for I am lying on my side and she is sitting behind my back.
“Don’t move,” she commands. “Lie still, and do not speak.”
For the next couple of minutes, various words keep rising up my throat but stop short at my tongue. Finally I manage to say, “That’s enough. The ache is gone. Thank you. Now you go sleep.”
She lifts her hands from my head. I think she is going away. Then I hear her say, “Turn this way. Lie straight.”
I turn, lie on my back. I open my eyes but I see nothing in the dark except, perhaps, her outline.
She begins pressing my head again, concentrating on the temples. I say, “Arre, leave it. Give me another aspirin and I will be okay.”
“Two aspirins have had no effect,” she says. “There is only one relief for headache, and that is someone pressing the head.”
“You seem to speak from experience,” I say, at once feeling concerned for her.
“Of the headache, yes, not so much of the relief,” she says in a voice that speaks lightly of her troubles.
I don’t know what to say. After a moment, I stop searching for words and let myself be overwhelmed by the feeling of bliss that her hands are giving me. But soon, I am disturbed by my own selfishness. I open my eyes and say, “Okay, you must go now. I will be able to sleep now. As an angel you came. God bless you.”
She keeps pressing my head, and says, “I came to check on you, saw you writhing in pain. It must be a severe headache. You first let go of all thoughts, and concentrate on sleeping. I will go away soon, when I see you calm.”
“Are you an owl that can see in the dark?” I say, out of habit, and immediately regret it. “I am calm now. More than calm, I am in comfort. You go. It will not look good if someone sees you here.”
“There are no owls here who can see in the dark,” she says, a slight complaint in her voice. “You alone are seeing ghosts where none exist.”
These words, if they were meant to assure me, do the opposite: they scare me. I have seen ghosts before. I am terrified of them. Annie by my side, I have not been sure if it is a dream come true or a dream become more intricate.
I feel her hands with mine. This touch, it has to be real, for every hair on my skin, every nerve in my body, feels it.
And now I can’t let go of her hands. I do not want this sensation to end, ever. So engrossed do I become, so lost in exploring its various features, that I forget that I am touching a woman. Whether I am observing manners or not, restraining my desire or not, the thought does not occur. The head has almost stopped sensing her touch. My hands have sucked it all to themselves, hogged it.
I regain my senses after I don’t know how much time. I realize that I am holding both her hands in mine, in a grip, my palms going around the back of her hands and curling her fingers inwards, so that only the base of her palm is resting upon my forehead while her fingers are wrapped in mine.
I should have let go of her hands at once, but something beyond and greater than my will keeps them attached. From my lips escapes like a sigh, “Annie.”
Silence is all I hear in response. I tighten my grip around her hands and say with great, stuttering effort, “Annie… I… I came to ask… I came here, today, to ask for your hand.”
I feel the shudder in her hands. I hold them even tighter, clutching at them as if they were… as if they were the branch of a tree from which I was hanging above a gorge.
“You don’t have to ask for that which belongs to you,” I hear her say, a soft, gentle whisper that sounds louder than thunder.
It is as if I have been struck by lightning. My hands have gone into convulsions, tightening and relaxing their grip ten times in one second. I have an overwhelming urge to speak, to move, to see, to act, but all that is happening is a sort of choking on my own emotion. My heart, it feels it will burst out of my chest and explode like a balloon.
At some moment I have brought her hands to my chest and am holding them clasped to it. When the world has stopped spinning and the storm that came into my breath has passed, I open my eyes and look at her, by sheer will conjuring enough light in that darkness to behold the expression on her face, in her eyes. I say, “I belong to you, Annie. I know no other thing. I have no other thought. Whatever it is that I am, I am yours, in this life, and in every other.”
“It is my fortune. God has been kind to me.”
Is that a tear I detect in her eye? Or is it one in my own? I ask her, “You will marry me even as I am? I have no job, no money.”
“You will have me,” she says, with a smile, “and I will have you.”
“Then the whole world is ours,” I say and immediately the dam of my eye bursts. I lift one hand to wipe my eyes, letting go of the hand I had been clutching, then I let go of the other hand, too, to use both hands to stop the tears. She caresses my head, then removes my hands from over my eyes. She begins to wipe away my tears, with one hand at first, then with both. Her palms move over my cheeks, my nose, my forehead, and over my eyes, repeatedly. My tears stop and flow, stop and flow, until all my restraint breaks down. I clutch her wrists and press her palms into my eyelids, like cotton pressed tight over a bleeding cut, and still the tears find their way through. After some time I sit up, compose myself, and hold her hands gently, by the fingers.
“These hands, Annie, I will never let go of them,” I look at her and say.
She does not stir for a moment, then frees her fingers and puts her palms on my cheeks.
“It is not what we wish that life is,” she says. “Nothing happens by our wishing it. All that we have, all that we treasure, is because someone, invisible and unknown, has granted it.”
Saying this, she leans forward and kisses me lightly on the lips. “Sleep now, my prince, my lord. As our prayers have brought us here, so will they take us forward. In our faith in one another, we are already wedded together. In faith, you are my husband. In faith, I am your wife.”
She takes my hands, presses them, and for a moment brings them to her bosom, then leaves them and walks away. I sit stunned, confused, my mind calm but my heart restless, in rapture one moment, in anxiety the next. Our marriage: how will I go about it, when will it happen, where the money, the livelihood? Will her parents agree? I will not get her into some trouble, will I? These thoughts come and go, but the thought of she being my wife, dressed as a bride, living in my home, that is ever-constant, like an anchor, a beacon. It is a thought good, auspicious, wonderful. I believe in it, I live by it. Annie’s words are still echoing in my ears. “All that we have, all that we treasure, is because someone, invisible and unknown, has granted it.” There is nothing to be gained, or lost, by worrying and planning. Whatever good is going to happen in life will not come out of a wish but from the granter of unexpected gifts. Whatever is granted will be enough, fulfilment indeed.
Kanyakubja Brahmins: An endogamous community of Brahmins who live, mainly, in the Gangetic plains of north India
Manusmriti: Book of sayings of Manu, the first man, as ‘remembered’ by later sages
Ekadashi: eleventh day of the lunar fortnight
Krishna paksha: the ‘darkening’ or waning lunar fortnight
Ashwin maas: the month of Ashwin, seventh in the Hindu calendar, usually falls in September-October
pitra-paksha: the lunar fortnight devoted to the forefathers, the first fortnight of Ashwin month
Dussehra: festive day celebrating Ram’s slaying of Ravan, the exiled prince of Ayodhya killing the crowned king of Lanka in battle, on the tenth day of the second lunar fortnight of Ashwin month
paan: betel-leaf, as it is called, popular as something to chew on
gutkha: another popular, but factory-manufactured, substance to chew on.
Author’s Bio : Gaurav Dikshit is 35 years old, lives in Lucknow, and is trying to sustain his life by writing. He has been a journalist in Delhi, Erasmus scholar for two years in Europe, but considers neither Delhi nor Europe fit to live in. If he finds some success as a writer, then he will buy some land on the outskirts of Lucknow and become a farmer. One story of his, Judgement Night, was selected for New Asian Writing’s 2013 anthology.