Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
“Renu! Renu! Where are you?” Kishan Kumar’s coarse voice echoed across the living room.
“Yes, Bauji” Renu scampered out of the kitchen, her hands coated in flour and beads of sweat punctuating her forehead. Even after twenty years of living under the same roof, she wasn’t on comfortable terms with this authoritarian old man, who was her father-in-law. “What happened Bauji?” she asked nervously. Whenever he called out to her like that, it rarely spelt good news.
“Why don’t you ask your daughter?” he said, glancing over at Anisha who stood by the table, her head hung low.
“Anisha?” Renu looked at her sixteen year daughter who was on the verge of tears. Her silky black hair fell loosely around her beautiful oval face, which was now pale with fear.
“Anisha…what did you do?” she repeated, louder this time. For whatever she did, Anisha would be better off being reprimanded by her. At least that would save her from Bauji’s caustic tongue, which could inflict wounds that refused to heal for years to come.
“This…this is what she has been upto…instead of studying for her board exams,” roared Bauji as he flung a book on the floor. It landed face-up and the cover read “Kiss of A Stranger” by Maya. Renu’s face flushed and she wiped her face with the edge of her fraying cotton dupatta.
“I am sorry mama…a friend gave it to me,” explained Anisha, her voice loaded with guilt as if she’d committed some inexplicable sin.
“Just go to your room,” Renu ordered Anisha in a stern voice. The girl quickly made her way out.
It is only natural for a young girl to be curious about sex and sensuality…what is the big deal? She was tempted to retaliate but she knew all too well how her father-in-law felt about such things.
“I am very sorry about this Bauji. I’ll talk to Anisha…” she said, her voice trembling.
“You’d better! Girls from good families don’t read filthy books like these. What kind of values have you given her?” he said in an accusatory tone. This wasn’t the first time he had made an indirect, and rather hurtful, reference to her “values”, which in his opinion were scarce because she came from a broken home. Renu stayed silent. Through the years she had learnt the hard way that silence was her best weapon. Only when Bauji had limped back to his room and closed the door behind him, did she dare to pick up the book from its place on the ground. She ran a hand over it.
Maya. The name had been making waves for quite some time.
“Where did you get this book from?” Renu casually asked her daughter in the privacy of her room.
“Mama, I’m sorry.”
“No, you don’t have to be sorry beta, it is a natural part of growing up…when I was your age, I used to love reading these romantic novels,” she said with a smile.
“Really?” Anisha’s eyes lit up with curiosity. She could never imagine her staid mother losing herself in steamy stories.
“Yes, dear,” Renu placed a comforting hand on Anisha’s shoulder. “My friends and I…we used to borrow all these Mills and Boons books from the local library and read them in school, during recess. You know how strict convent schools are…once Sister Martha caught us and we ended up making ten rounds of the football field,” she chuckled and Anisha joined in. She still found it hard to believe that her mother had a rebellious streak to her but the frank confession comforted her. “I know you love to read and you should…as many kinds of books you can…each book has something to teach you,” she continued.
“Then why did Daadu…?” Anisha’s face grew sullen as she remembered what had happened a few moments ago.
“Beta…everyone has their own opinions…their own ideologies. Daadu is a little conservative and we can do nothing to change him. But you do whatever makes you happy, just make sure he doesn’t find out”. She winked at her daughter. Raising a teen is hard business. “Thank you mama” Anisha gave her mother a heart-felt hug.
“But don’t waste too much time on these right now…you can read all you want after the board exams,” she said and stroked her daughter’s hair fondly. Anisha looked so much like her. Her enormous almond shaped eyes twinkled when she laughed and her ravenous locks had a will of their own; nothing could hold them back. Every time she tried to tie them up, they would rebelliously spring back and tease her cheeks in defiance. They shared plenty of intrinsic qualities too. She reminisced the days when she would drown herself in sensual romances, to experience a world that was so new, and so forbidden. Back then, it was a flight of fantasy, but now it was a spicy escape from the tasteless reality of life.
“Mama…look what I made!” Avinash, her 10 year old son, came cruising into the room with a wooden object that bore some semblance, if not much, to an airplane. “That’s very nice. Does it fly?” she asked, her gaze following the energetic little boy who ran all around the place. “Not on its own but I can make it fly like this.” He ran around her in circles, tirelessly, with his creation held as high up as his dirt covered hands would allow. The boy had been obsessed with airplanes. There was a remote-control operated one that he particularly liked and she so badly wanted to gift it on his birthday next month but Dev hadn’t sanctioned the money for it yet. She couldn’t quite remember the last time she had a fruitful conversation with her husband – he was hardly ever there, ever since he found that job in Sitapur. Renu always thought people migrated from Sitapur to Lucknow in search of jobs, and seldom the other way around.
“Why don’t you look for something here…it doesn’t matter if the salary is a little lesser,” she had once suggested but he didn’t feel the need to explain why he wasn’t trying hard enough to stay closer to his wife, children and ageing father. He wasn’t a bad husband or an irresponsible father; just that he didn’t share enough with her …his thoughts, his ideas, his decisions, his body….She wasn’t privy to any of those. “You take care of the kids and the house. Leave the rest to me,” he politely told her on more than one occasion. And for so many years, that’s what she had been doing…until last year….
She had told him that she wanted to buy that airplane for Avi but he hadn’t given her a definitive reply. It had been weeks now. She would probably need to tap into her secret piggy bank – the one she had been feeding all these years, like every middle-class housewife does.
A stifling silence fell upon the room as Anisha went back to her study table and Avi zoomed into the yard with his precious toy plane. She cast a furtive glance at the mirror and a pair of lackluster eyes and worn-down middle-aged face stared back at her. She definitely looked older than most women her age. She tucked a loose lock behind her ear and shook her head. Closing the door, she reluctantly picked up the bright red paperback sitting on her bed. The cover depicted a silhouette of two beautiful bodies entwined in an intimate posture. How tastefully done, she thought as she flicked the pages randomly.
“She moaned and arched her back as he penetrated her being, but her voice was muffled under a forceful, almost violent kiss. His tongue hungrily explored the insides of her fragrant mouth and she raised her pelvis, slapping his buttocks as she did, urging him to go faster, harder…”read a random passage. Renu smiled to herself and hid the book on her bookshelf that was already bursting with books, big and small, old and new. They were her most prized possessions, her only companions during long, lonely nights. They were her secret escape route, her utopia.
“Tsk..Tsk..what has the world come to..” grumbled Bauji as he read an excerpt from Maya’s book that featured in the Sunday magazine. If he hates it so much, why is he reading it at all, Renu thought to herself and went on clearing the bottom of the table where old newspapers had been piling up for the past week. One couldn’t blame him either – Maya was an enigma that sparked extreme emotions. You could either love her or hate her, but never be indifferent to her. While some loved her for the bold, steamy style of her writing, others hated her for being so brazen and unapologetic about sex. She wasn’t catering to a niche either – the three novels she had released so far had been national bestsellers, lapped up by readers and non-readers alike. You couldn’t label them ‘porn’ but they were nothing short of it in any way. The critics had called her “Queen of Erotica” , and incidentally, that’s what the special Sunday feature was about – Women who are revolutionizing the concept of sensuality in India”. Along with Maya, it featured a couple of women directors, and an artist. Their strong, feminist faces smiled back from the glossy page of the newspaper, except for Maya’s. Nobody had seen her and she never gave interviews, but of all these four women, she was the one who made the most news and ruffled the most feathers.
Renu kept to her business, deciding not to respond to her father-in-laws laments but he was far from done. “These women are corrupting our Indian culture. Shameless…how do they face their families after all this..” he went on, talking to no one in particular. Everybody knew ‘Maya’ was a pen name but nobody knew the woman behind those racy, raunchy romances. There had been rumors that ‘Maya’ was actually a man; but how did he know so much about that part of a woman’s mind where uninhibited sexual fantasies take wing? How could he dive into the deep recesses of a woman’s heart where she hid all her dark sexual secrets? Most women would shy away from acknowledging it, leave alone allowing their thoughts to flow onto paper in such candid and explicit words. All the speculation and curiosity only added to the enigma that was Maya.
The old desktop in their room ran painfully slow as Renu struggled to type out an email. She gave the CPU a good, hard thump on the side but that didn’t help much. The poor machine wheezed from the strain – it was way past its day. In a vain attempt to revive it from its temporary paralysis, she decided to clear the browser history, but what she saw made her eyes pop. Someone had looked up various permutations and combinations of “Maya, erotica, romance novel, India, official website”..Who could it be? Who in this family was so fascinated with Maya? Anisha had her own laptop and Avi couldn’t care less. And Bauji…he didn’t even know how to use the computer. It could be no one else but Dev. But why was Dev so fascinated with Maya? Then again, wasn’t every other man who had read her books? Renu sighed and hit the button.
She knew that unlike most authors who reveled in the public eye, Maya did not have a website or a blog. Her books were everywhere – on the publisher’s website, Amazon and Flipkart. Review portals were buzzing with five-star reviews but there was nary a promotional attempt from her side. She was nowhere to be found, as if she never existed.
Thinking of Dev took her back to last weekend, when he had come visiting. He spent the day with the children, helping out Anisha with Maths and listening to Avi as he rambled about his hand-made wonder. At the Kumar household, Sunday was usually a cleaning day, unlike other households where families went out for a movie or a restaurant , or just relaxed at home with a “Sunday-special” meal. But this time, he had surprised everyone by taking them for a walk around Hazratganj. The children were thrilled. “The outing will be a welcome break for Anisha,” he said.
Renu draped a mustard yellow georgette saree that Dev had gifted her years ago. He had said that the colour looked beautiful on her. The flowy fabric clung to her curves, which, on most days, stayed hidden under loose-fitting cotton salwar kameezes that didn’t come in the way of her work. She decorated her forehead with a sparkling bindi and lined her lips with a crimson red, secretly hoping he’d notice but he quickly ushered them into the car without so much as an appreciative glance. The market was closed but they enjoyed a round of gol-gappas, and gorged on aloo tikki, papdi chaat and kulfi till their stomachs threatened to burst. Renu looked on as Avi and Anisha shared an ice-cream and a rare sense of contentment filled her heart. Bauji had stayed home, she was finally able to relax.
“Is Anisha paying attention to her studies?” Dev asked as they sat on a wrought iron bench facing the fountain in the middle of Hazratganj. “I want her to score at least 95%.”
“She’s working hard..Don’t worry, she’ll do well”, Renu replied. He nodded.
“Avi is growing naughtier by the day”, she continued, trying hard to keep the awkward silence from creeping in. A young couple on the bench opposite theirs laughed out loud and the woman sunk her face into the man’s chest. Renu looked longingly at her husband, who was now signaling the children to come back. It was late in the evening and it was time to go home. “Let’s go. Bauji must be waiting for dinner”.
That night she had slid a reluctant hand between the buttons on his shirt but he’d said he was too tired. Did he not desire her at all? Did he desire Maya? She knew all too well that she was not fantasy material but she was his wife, and the mother of his children. She could please him too, if only he’d let her.
“Have we run out of salt?” Bauji said sarcastically as he pushed a morsel past his dentures. Anisha quickly passed him the sprinkler before he had a chance to say anything else. She looked past Bauji at her mother, who was busy rolling one chappati after the other, almost as a spinal mechanism. Renu mouthed a “thank you” and smiled at her daughter. She was glad to have someone cover up for her but why had she forgotten to season the vegetables? It wasn’t like her to be absent minded around the house. Try as she might, her thoughts kept drifting back to the browser history. Why was her husband so in awe of Maya? She never knew he read her books – at least he hadn’t told her, just like so many other things. Was he actually searching for her? What if he found her? It was a disturbing thought and she feared that the seemingly unlikely event would turn her life upside down.
At the Kumar household, dinner was usually served by 8 pm so that Bauji could retire before the TV and the children could tuck in bed. But by the time Renu got done with clearing the table and preparing for the next day, it was a little past 11 pm. Her muscles ached and her head throbbed. She drew out a few sheets of paper and started scribbling, like she did almost every night. It was the only way to vent her frustration. The regret of giving up a rewarding career. The burden of a loveless marriage. The thankless drudgery she went through each day. The unfulfilled desires. With deft strokes of her pen, she transformed the ugly realities of life into beautiful prose. Many a time, she had toyed with the idea of maintaining an online journal but somehow, it wasn’t half as intimate as the relationship she shared with a pen and a paper. For her, it was a simplistic solution to the most complex of problems.
A knock on the door interrupted her flow. She quickly bunched up the loose sheets of paper and stuffed them under her pillow, before she opened the door. “Mama..I want to sleep with you”, said Avi, his eyes groggy with sleep. “Okay beta”. The boy snuggled beside his mother and comforted by her familiar scent, slowly drifted into peaceful slumber. Renu covered him with a quilt and pulled out the paper she had shoved so carelessly under the pillow. She was so relieved it wasn’t Bauji. She ironed out the crinkles with the warm palm of her hand and immersed herself in the prose she had abandoned midway. It took ten sheets and two hours, but once she had flushed every ounce of emotion from within her, she was able to go to bed with a relatively lighter heart.
It was almost noon when Renu returned home. She had been out since morning. “Where are you coming from at this hour?” Bauji growled, his eyes brimming with irritation.
“Bauji, I had to go to the market to buy some things for the children…some books and stationary”, she said, wondering why she had to justify everything she ever did. She was 37 years old and she had spent 18 years in this house, yet she had not earned the freedom to live her life on her own terms.
It had been a hot and humid day in August and she was tired from going around in rickshaws. Dev took the family car with him to Sitapur – they had only bought it last year – a cherry red Alto – and that too on an EMI. She barely got to use the car but it made life a whole lot tougher for her. She didn’t know how much her husband earned – he would just hand her Rs.15,000 on the first of every month. But now, because of the EMI, her “pocket money” had been sliced down to Rs.10,000. Month after month, she struggled hard to cope with the school-related expenses, inflated prices of groceries and bills. There were times she wished she had a career – that would take care of so much. With a Masters degree in Geography, she knew she could have easily found a teaching job. “Then who will take care of the kids and Bauji”, Dev had said when she discussed the option with him. That was several years ago. Things would certainly get better, she assured herself.
She quietly walked into the room, her hands loaded with shopping bags and closed the door behind her. Drawing a large box from one of the jute bags, she looked mighty pleased with herself. Inside the colorful cardboard packaging, was the remote controlled plane that Avi had been pining for. It had cost her more than she thought but Avi would be so happy to see this on his birthday, which was next week. He wasn’t the kind of kid who would raise a fuss over a toy – this must really mean a lot to him. She stashed it into her box-bed, which had, over time, become her secret cove. Sometimes she wished she hadn’t have to hide mundane stuff from her father-in-law but he wasn’t ready to take her for what she was, at least not yet.
She didn’t know exactly who to blame for her mediocre life – certainly not herself. She hadn’t made this choice. In fact she couldn’t clearly remember why she had agreed to this unlikely match – it was sometime during her parent’s divorce eighteen years ago – maybe she had had too much on her mind to notice that Dev was nowhere close to the man she had envisioned for herself. He was handsome, no doubt, with dark broodings eyes, and full lips. His bushy eyebrows took centre stage on his face. On their first meeting – there had been only one before they got married – they had gotten along just fine. He was polite, well-mannered and stable, the metaphorical “spark” had been there too. It had been a few months since Dev’s mother lost her battle with cancer, and Bauji was in a hurry to get his only son married. The house was in serious need of a woman. The past few years were a haze and she wasn’t sure at what point the spark had left them…
She barely had one hour to get lunch on the table. The children would be home any minute and Bauji would start pacing up and down if his meal wasn’t served on time. There was no time to feel tired – the fatigue had to be brushed under the carpet for now. She switched on the radio for some respite.
The pressure cooker hissed in her face as she frantically chopped vegetables and tossed them into the wok. Now for the chapattis. Everything had to be fresh and hot. Bauji wouldn’t eat anything that had been sitting around since morning – bringing leftovers to the table was blasphemy.
“I’m here at Global Book Store and you should see the crowds lining up to get a copy of “First Night”!” chirped the Radio Jockey. “Like Maya’s other 3 releases, this one seems to be a sure shot best seller!” Renu pressed the rolling ping so hard that it tore the chappati in the middle. She would have to start all over again. From the small window that connected the kitchen and the dining room, she could see annoyance spread across Bauji’s perpetually disgruntled face. She just hoped he’d refrain from rattling off. She didn’t have the energy to listen to his rants about Indian culture and how every creatively inclined person was hell-bent on soiling it.
Maya’s fourth book had released today and she wondered if Dev had got himself a copy. Should she ask him when he came over this weekend? He was to come over every weekend – at least that’s what was the initial plan. And for the first few months, he did stick to it religiously, but then there were weekend meetings, rising fuel costs and the long commutes – his visits trickled down to once a month, at best. She was sure he’d come the following weekend – it was Avi’s birthday after all.
“Mama, is papa going to come for my birthday party?” asked Avinash as Renu scuttled around the house to make arrangements. She had ordered a Spiderman cake from the neighborhood bakery and sent out the invites to his friends. Chhole bhature and dahi badas would surely be a hit with the little ones – they were easy to put together, and not very expensive too.
“He said he’ll try his best”, she said cheerfully, feeling guilty about lying to her son on his birthday. She had called up Dev last night to ask what time he’d be there. “There is an office party…all the senior managers are coming..I have to be there”, he’d said apologetically. She thought she heard a woman chuckling in the background.
“Are you outside?”she’d casually asked, afraid that her interrogative tone would offend him. These days, she could never tell what would rub him the wrong way. At times, he’d patiently answer every question she would put up but at others, he would just blow his lid at the slightest provocation. He wasn’t anything like that when she married him . The unpredictability, the irritation and the detachment were all recent phenomena. She was slowly learning to deal with it but in the same breath, she cursed the day he left for Sitapur. It had been a little above a year.
“Ahh, no..not really..Just watching TV”, his voice was cold, and detached. The woman chuckled again.
Avinash would be upset but the toy plane would offer some solace, or so she hoped. “Beta…papa had some urgent work to finish so he might not be able to come. But he promised he’ll make up for it when he comes next time”, she said caressing her son’s soft cheeks. She had carefully timed the revelation – Avi’s friends had started trickling in and she hoped that it would in some way make up for the disappointing piece of news. Avi frowned on hearing it but as his enthused guests walked through the doorway with sparkling gift packages in hand, he forgot all about it. Renu wished she could forget just as easily….. She was glad that Dev had at least wished Avi over the phone in the morning. Oh, how she missed Dev!
A masculine arm curled around her waist as she slept on one side. Though she didn’t get to feel it often, she recognized her husband’s touch – his hands felt warm and rough as they gliding over her smooth stomach. She flinched as a wave of arousal engulfed her body but kept her eyes shut, waiting for his hands to caress her full bosom. But he was in no mood for a gentle lovemaking. He turned her around on her back and plunged his face into the nape of her neck. Kissing. Biting. The friction from his stubble caused her delicate skin to burn but this was exactly the way she liked it. She grabbed him by his hair and pulled him in closer, taking in his manly scent and feeling the heat of his breath, which smelt of hunger and desperation. Her body writhed with pleasure under his weight as he entered into her without warning, sending her into throes of passion. “Dev..” she shrieked as every inch of her being convulsed in passion. She immediately woke up in a cold sweat. Her chest was still heaving from the intensity of his lovemaking and her heart was thumping wildly. The room was dark and her bed, empty. Renu’s eyes almost welled up in tears. All the tossing and turning seemed futile. Sleep eluded her for hours until she finally resigned herself to her usual bedtime routine – pen a few sheets of paper. As the words spilled over the blank white sheets, she became another woman. She became Maya.
Author’s Bio: Shuchi Singh Kalra is a writer, editor and blogger based in India. She has been writing since 2005, and has freelanced with businesses and popular magazines such as Femina.in, Good Housekeeping, Home Review, Parent & Child, Vista, Dogs & Pups, Women’s Era and Time ‘N’ Style among many others. She also writes a monthly travel column for Investors India. Shuchi is the owner of Pixie Dust Writing Studio, a quaint little and editing firm that services a global clientele, and the Indian Freelance Writers Blog. She has started dabbling in fiction only recently and her short stories have found a place in several anthologies. Travelling is her first love and she leads a happily nomadic life with her fauji husband and livewire toddler. Pay her a visit at www.shuchikalra.com.
Aloo tikki – a popular roadside snack made of fried potato patty
Bauji – father
Beta – child
Bindi – forehead embellishment worn by Indian women
Chapati – rolled flatbread
Chole bhature – North Indian dish comprising chickpea gravy and deep-fried bread
Daadu – grandpa
Dahi Bada – fried lentil balls soaked in spiced yoghurt
Dupatta – a stole worn as part of attire
Gol-gappa – fried hollow balls filled with spicy water
Kulfi – Indian ice-cream
Papdi chaat – roadside snack made of crisps, yoghurt and sauces
Saaree – nine-yard long drape worn by Indian women
Salwaar Kameez – two-piece traditional Indian dress
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)
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