Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
Minakshi hit the play button, struggling to find a comfortable spot.
Phule phule dhole dhole,
Bohey kiba mridu baay.
Ki jani kishero lagi Pran kore haay-haay.
By the time she settled down—on her side, headphones tucked in and the laptop tilted at an angle so the light from her French window wouldn’t affect her vision—the Bengali song got over.
She hit play again.
Varun, her husband, once asked why she had it on loop.
“It’s a Tagore masterpiece, in a Satyajit Ray film. A man I’ve come to consider a sort of soul mate. And the way it’s been pictured, as she sways up and down, on a swing, singing—what a soulful rendition!”
She hadn’t given any of this a lot of thought. But it all came out, hurriedly, stacked, one on top of another. As if she needed to make a case for finding comfort in the song. It was from the film Charulata. About a woman, whose boredom blinded her, took her, if only in her mind, from the age of innocence onto the brazen.
She paused mentally at the word brazen. And then hit the pause button. She wondered if she was even worthy of this comparison. After all, Charulata’s was chaste indulgence; a bored housewife’s need for the company of another man.
Minakshi found her thoughts wandering back to the night. This happened more often now. Especially, right after she settled in, comfortably, on this large, rosewood four-poster bed with a memory foam mattress. And as if it really had a memory of its own, her bed took her by the hands and walked her back to the dark. The irony of it all made her smile bitterly for, it was her marital bed.
It had all been her idea.
She wondered what her landlady and the sweet old woman’s husband would think if they found out. She was quite sure they’d just assumed it was a bunch of Indians getting together for some dinner that day.
She braced herself for a wave of shame and guilt to wash over her. It didn’t.
She went straight to the kitchen and looked out of the window. It faced the wilderness behind her home. And from there she could see the sun set. It was beautiful. And she was bored of it. She was bored of the way light filtered in through that window and caressed a bit of the wooden stairway that led to their bedroom. She was bored of the way the cane chairs sat undisturbed in the patio. She was bored of the predictable egg-shell coloured walls of that kitchen. And she was bored of the order that permeated that semi-detached house in suburban America. She longed for chaos. For traffic and her old, red scooter back home. The sunsets she enjoyed back there, in Madras—she had no patience for the new name of the city, Chennai—amid wild traffic and in between new and old buildings, seemed more real than the ones she caught here every day.
She had willed herself to forget that as a teenager, while running to catch a bus that was already weighed down by passengers spilling on to the footboard, as she struggled to make her way inwith her heavy school bag and lunch box and while being groped by drunk men in those too-full buses, she had prayed profusely for an escape out of her third world existence.
“He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past,” her husband would quote to her from his favourite Marquez novel.
She opened the liquor cabinet and poured herself a large whisky. Her husband didn’t know she was drinking again. She didn’t tell him she was. But on days like this, that were beginning to increase slowly, she couldn’t do anything without a glass in hand.
She sat in the too-bright, yellow-walled living room that was bouncing off the orange of the evening sun and switched on the television. Sabrina came on.
An hour and a half later, as Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn sailed away, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. Even on nights when she lay with her husband, she couldn’t stop herself. She closed her eyes. And then right there, in bed, while making love to him, she cheated on him. She wanted to feel bad, she wanted to feel guilty; instead all she felt was a pounding in her head. Just then the phone rang. It was Akash.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hi,” Minakshi said, her heart beating faster than she wanted it to.
“I’ve been thinking about you. Us…”
“Ok,” she said and paused before quickly adding that line she’d been rehearsing in her head all day long, “I don’t know what we are supposed to do.”
“I know. I know this is an unorthodox situation. And I don’t know right from wrong now. But I am sure we can figure this out if we spend some more time together?”
“I cannot do this to Varun. Can you do this to Anusha, and live with yourself?” the tears and the guilt that had evaded her all this while threatened to take control of her entire being at that instant.
“What if we meet and they don’t have a problem with that? Will you see me then?” he asked, and then she knew that he too had rehearsed his line before calling.
“I cannot think straight now. I will call you later,” she said and hung up.
Hers was an arranged marriage. At 22. Minakshi was still studying. A master’s degree with no man in tow. Her mother insisted she start ‘looking’ at prospective grooms so by the time she was 23 or 24, she could marry. But the very first man she was introduced to had liked her. And married her. She had no reason to say no. So she said yes. And she’d wondered if that had defined her over the years. Waiting for something she couldn’t say no to. While all her childhood she had dreamed of saying yes, a thousand different ways.
Their honeymoon to the romantic kingdom, the rugged Ladakh, with moonlike landscape, far away from home was her first taste of freedom. She’d lived with her orthodox parents all her life.
But there ended their romance. When she came back from the honeymoon she woke up to a kitchen full of dishes, an empty cereal bowl and a ticked off husband who wondered when she would get her act together and step into the kitchen to clean up the mess. It was as if they were different men. Until the day he came back he had been this soft, loving man who wanted nothing more than to undress her and make love. But there’s a reason everyone called it the ‘honeymoon phase’. She just hadn’t expected them to be that literal.
His blue tie. “That god damn blue tie!” she would mutter every day. It was nowhere to be found. When it wasn’t the tie, it was the socks that went missing. Minakshi wondered if there was a black hole in the universe where all the missing ties and socks of overworked husbands went to hide, all along laughing from a safe distance at the hell they were creating for wives.
“I swear, if you touch my clothes again I will burn your wardrobe!” Varun had screamed, throwing all her clothes out of the closet as revenge for the missing sock, one day.
She was relieved. At least the clothes weren’t her job any more.
However hard she resisted, the kitchen was clearly marked. It was her territory. And he might as well have peed all over the remote control.
“What will you give your husband when he’s hungry? You can’t give him instant noodles all the time!” Minakshi would laugh at her mother every time she was asked this question. Her mother was stuck in Stone Age, she would say. This was the new millennia, a brand new century. She was a Political Science graduate. Whatever made her think her daughter would live the same life she had lived?
She often thought about how different her life had been back home. Her childhood had been just that. Different. An age of appropriate indulgences that no matter how deep she dug, she no longer found.
Minakshi’s family lived in a two-bedroom apartment for rent in the commercial hub of Madras. School was a two-minute walk and she would wake up at 7.45 in the morning. The temple bells from across the road, at the Shiva Vishnu Temple, would chime loudly making for the perfect background score for those stolen moments of morning bliss. On All India Radio, Indru Oru Thagaval (An information today), her Amma‘s favourite show, would be on.
They had a maid who would sweep the house, wash the vessels, hand-wash all their clothes, wring all water out of them and dry them on long, colourful plastic ropes in the backyard. She would sleep on a mattress curled up in the hall hoping her mother wouldn’t wake her up. Her mother had an unusual question everyday while waking her up, “Oh, you don’t have school today?” She would scream from the kitchen.
Her brother would be up, praying, in front of all the photos of gods in the kitchen. Minakshi would leap out of the straw mattress mumbling, “No! I have homework,” and run to the bathroom. She would take out her toothbrush and jump up to see herself in the mirror.
Amma would walk in on her jumping, wiping her forehead with her sari, nodding in disapproval. She would squeeze out Colgate. How her mother managed it all, Minakshi never could figure out. Two children; a husband; two parents; a smallish apartment; work. And of course, all that cooking. Between helping her brush and running back to the kitchen where the whistle from the pressure cooker would call out to her, she would also manage to check in on her father’s heart pill needs.
The thought of the sugary smell of rice and pappu, with asafoetida in the rasam, made her want to weep. Rasam was a favourite. With ripe, red tomatoes and tamarind extract. All nostalgia, at least for her, ended with a longing for food, just the way her mother would make, sometimes even her father.
After brunch, Nana would help her wear the white, canvas shoes even though Amma insisted she was old enough to wear them herself. He would polish her feet first with the socks. “Let’s polish your feet before polishing the shoes eh?” he would smile, and she would laugh, feeling ticklish.
A year after the wedding, Minakshi moved to America where Varun was posted. For six months. The six months breezed away but the assignment wasn’t over.
Now, in her thirties, far away from home, she craved the mundane and it eluded her.
When she left for America, Minakshi had never been anywhere foreign. It was, in fact, the fourth time she was travelling by air. The sights at the international airport though, had left her dejected. It looked like a mofussil bus stop to her. She even saw a woman in a night gown—not the sexy ones or what they called PJs here, but the ones they called nightie back home, a long, loose cotton gown with some ugly embroidery right around the bosom area—and a shawl wrapped around her bald head. The woman was going back to the US after a visit to her hometown, where she’d tonsured her hair, at a temple.
She was terribly bored when she first came here. So bored, that she started working. She made a few cents every week blogging for different companies. And then there was her job at the local supermarket as an accountant. She could barely count change. She’d hated math all along in school. Varun had laughed at her for calling it maths. She’d called it maths for as long as she could remember, back home. But when something like this came up, she would quietly think of what her mother would say and laugh. “If you’re to share your life with a dog you are going to have to bark!”
And then there were her food blogging days. She would cook, click pictures and post them on her blog (it was called Guess Who’s Making Dinner?), every single day. Minakshi wasn’t the only one. All over the internet there were women with food blogs. The blogs she ran into were owned by Indian women, in the US with free time and access to ingredients they had only ever heard of in Enid Blytons back home. Their male friends from India would leave comments like, “Your husband is so lucky yaar!”
A few years later, Minakshi graduated with another Master’s degree, here in the US.
“Your Madras University degree will be of no use if you want to actually be someone in the real world,” Varun said. She had just told him she graduated top of her class. Surely she should’ve been able to find a better job. “Who did you study with? Men and women who couldn’t actually afford a real degree and so went to good old Madras University? Why would anyone take you seriously here? I suggest you enroll in school again and get a proper degree.”
It was a while before she realised that tears were streaming down her cheeks. Minakshi wasn’t sad. She was angry. She wanted to hurt him.
She put on her coat and went out for a walk.
She called home and told her mother she couldn’t live here anymore. She wanted to go back. All the feelings of humiliation she’d put away came crashing down on her at once. At this alien place where she had no real friends, no real degree and no real life.
Minakshi went back.
Varun came after her a few months later.
This time, he swept her over. Not that he needed to. She couldn’t live there anymore. She was too used to her depressingly quiet albeit supremely comfortable first world life. She couldn’t even kick-start her old scooter. She almost tore some ligaments kicking it one afternoon incessantly.
They had almost always met at home where her parents fussed over him. And then one night, Minakshi could no longer wait. She took him to the terrace and made love to him. When they were done, Varun said, “I have to go back the day after and I have your ticket. I want you.”
She went back with him.
At one of his work parties, Varun introduced, Akash, a 20-something software engineer, and his wife, Anusha to her. They had just returned from a week-long honeymoon in Udaipur and were more than eager to make friends. “It’s so hard to find like-minded people here,” Akash said. “And, my god, some of the desis here are outrageous. I probably wouldn’t even let my maid talk to them if we were home,” Anusha added.
“Tell me about it, I saw one in a nightie with a shawl wrapped around her bald head at the International Terminal in Madras,” Minakshi said with laugh. “I nearly choked of embarrassment. What’s wrong with wearing a sari?”
The following week, Minakshi caught up with Akash and Anusha over a cup of coffee and later, she had them over for dinner. There was great food, company and lots of alcohol. For the first time in years, she felt at home. And then someone suggested that all four play Pictionary, in separate teams.
The phone rang.
“Hello! How are you?” Amma’s cheerfully sweet voice enquired.
“Hi Amma, I am good. You? How’s Nana?” she asked.
“All fine. Where’s he?”
“Work! He comes home late mostly,” she tried to sound as sober as she could.
“Good he is not there. I wanted to talk to you in private.”
She knew where this was going.
“Look, you are 31. You shouldn’t keep us all waiting like this. Have a child. It’s going to be very difficult later.”
“Ma, 31 isn’t that old!” Minakshi protested.
“This is already late. If there’s a problem you can always tell me.”
“There’s no problem Ma. We’re talking. But I don’t have time for this now, I need to make dinner. Say hi to Nana for me,” she wanted to hang up right away.
“Ok take care. Be cheerful,” Amma said, and laughed.
“Yes Ma, be jolly, be happy, be cheerful!” she said laughing, that was their pick-me-up phrase. “Bye.”
Minakshi showered and went into the kitchen.
Her mother’s call had left her craving for some South Indian food. Thankfully she still had some sambar powder.
She soaked tamarind, pureed tomatoes and strained the two together. Adding onions to one half, she made sambar. And with the other, she made rasam. She also melted some clarified butter, popped some mustard seeds and poured it on the two dishes. It made a loud noise. As she opened the fridge to get some dried curry leaves, the doorbell rang.
She closed her eyes and wished she had imagined it.
It rang again.
“You’re early!” Minakshi said, trying to sound as cheerful as she could.
“Oh well, I figured I could work from home today a little. It’s the long weekend so all my colleagues left early,” Varun said undoing his tie and kicking off his shoes.
“Oh great!” she beamed.
“Honey, were you drinking? For god’s sake it’s only 6. Looks like you emptied a JD all by yourself.”
He sounded worried.
“No, no I had some friends from my yoga class over. And they spent all day with me here and just left. We watched Charulata and Sabrina,” she said, picking up his shoes and putting them in the cupboard. His socks smelt like a corpse. She didn’t bring it up.
“I was just making dinner. I didn’t know you’d be early, but I am sure there’s enough for the two of us,” she said, trying to not sound disappointed at the thought of having to share her meal with him.
Wives crave for their husbands to be spontaneous—on television and probably elsewhere in pop culture. “Really, wives rely heavily on the predictability of their husbands. Planning entire lives around their husbands’ schedules,” her wise grandmother had once told her.
“Look I know you don’t like last minute plans. Akash and Anusha will be here in about ten minutes!” he said, hugging her from behind. “It was so flattering when he said they wanted to come back. I couldn’t say no. Could you please get ready, and soon?”
She didn’t move.
“Also, I was wondering if I could get our bed this time with her, maybe you can drive back with him to their place?”
Amma – Mother
Nana – Father
Pappu – Lentils
Rasam – Soup of tamarind and tomatoes
Sambar – Tamarind-based broth of vegetables and lentils
Author’s Bio: Lakshmi Krupa GE, is a Chennai-based writer and journalist who has worked in leading Indian newspapers, including The Hindu and The Times of India. She has written extensively on art, culture, music, literature, rural enterprises, crafts, etc, over the last seven years. She has co-authored two coffee table books and was shortlisted for the César Egido Serrano Foundation, Madrid’s Flash Fiction Competition Prize. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines like Reading Hour, Papercuts, Sahitya Akademi’s literary journal Indian Literature. She is interested in and intrigued by the female gaze and is currently writing her first novel.