Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
The party was almost drawing to a close. Empty champagne glasses carelessly arranged themselves along with discarded plates, crumpled paper napkins and used cutlery on the pale cream and gold satin table tops. Glitters and balloons were scattered everywhere and Lalitha watched as some of the confetti stuck itself on sequined georgette sarees and dresses that friends and extended family of hers and Bala’swore. Most of the guests had left and the gifts—wrapped ones and flower bouquets lay heaped in the corner of the large ballroom. The men looked happily drunk, their eyes twinkling with the kind of satiation that comes only when one is high on happinessor alcohol.
Bala was engaged in animated conversation with his raucous bunch of friends. The smoke from their cigarettes circled itself over the bar counter and gently hovered around their heads. Bala looked at Lalitha and blew out a kiss. She smiled and walked to the nearest chair, slipped off her heeled slippers and signalled the waiter for somewater. The evening had been very emotional for her. She had been on the verge of tears several times.
Ananya and Sahana were smiling at the departing guests, glowing with compliments of how well they had put together a surprise silver anniversary party for their parents. Lalitha smiled— she couldn’t have asked for better children. They had been angels—the girls, and had grown into such special, warm people that everything that Lalitha had worked so hard for seemed worthwhile.
Her eyes roamed the room and settled on Ranjith. Just then, he caught her eye and smiled. Ranjith—he was another person she was thankful for. Ranjith was her schoolmate and they were almost best friends. He was the closest Lalitha had for a brother. He had been there for her through her highs and lows. It was he who gave her suggestions on career moves and listened to her when she wanted to rant. They even called each other soul siblings. Bala and Ranjith shared a warm rapport as well and Bala knew how much Lalitha trusted Ranjith.
“So happy you could come today.” Lalitha said, as Ranjith walked toward her.
“Wouldn’t miss my sister’s silver anniversary celebration for anything.I can imagine the fright you will look on your golden…” he couldn’t resist pulling her leg to make her laugh, as he settled himselfin a chair next to her.
“Won’t last till then,” she said. Her eyes clouded and she quickly turned away.
“Think it must be the hormones. Can’t seem to even watch Tom and Jerry without crying these days.”
An awkward pause followed. She wiped her eyes with a tissue on the table and smiled brightly.
“What’s wrong?” Ranjith asked.
“Why, nothing—told you, think I’m truly over the hill…”her voice trailed off and she began a trifle more vehemently, “All this, the celebration and the happiness is meant for truly made-for-each-other couples. That’s what makes it meaningful.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Ranjith asked again, donning his admonishing hat. “You’ve crossed 25 years together, Lalitha. That is in itself a milestone. Worth celebrating.”
He was treading dangerous ground. In all the time he had known her; she had never cribbed or ranted about her married life. It struck him as strange. What could possibly be bothering her now?
“Yeah, I suppose so. Worth the endurance, I think.”
Some more guests were leaving. “Bless you both, darling” said Tara Aunty as he hobbled her way to Lalitha’s table. She bent down, hugged Tara Aunty and guided her to the door.
Ranjith was still at the table when she walked back.
“I probably need a holiday,” she said.
“Tell me what’s bothering you. Will call you in a couple of days when all this excitement settles down. And then, we can talk. Will you be okay?” he asked.
“Of course I will…
The girls came over to them and dragged Ranjith away for photographs.
“I am okay.” I always have been, she thought.
“I’ve been okay even though we haven’t gone out on a single vacation together, without the girls. Even when he chose to stay away from me when I was down almost every month from asthma attacks. Even though he has never cared enough to find out how I was in my bleakest moments. I’ve been okay even if we have celebrated nothing about us.
I was okay even when I first knew that he was out, having an affair when I was pregnant with Sahana… when I knew that something was not quite right, but couldn’t put a finger on it.
When I knew he brought her home when I was still nursing my infant at my mother’s house; I knew, but didn’t dare do a thing about it. Because I suppose in my heart, I was too afraid to confront him.
I was okay even when I almost had proof—when he brought her home, to help with the cooking when I went back to work. I knew. There were traces of them on our bed; the many times he sneaked toward the kitchen when the cook was there evenwhen I was home; his soiled underwear at the oddest of times, his unexplained late nights and his own veiled confessions of spending the afternoon with his ‘keep’ (veiled and disguised as a joke, of course)…
And of course, there was the cook—making up excuses about coming home when I was travelling—how she quit when we moved to our new home with Bala’s parents, because she wouldn’t feel comfortable there.The day she quit was the last I saw of her. The last day we spoke of her in the house. Even the children forgot after some time.
Was it over? Is it over? I still don’t know. Because there are still unexplained absences, smells that I don’t usually associate with him…Coming to think of it, I knew for sure only when we moved into our new home. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place one afternoon as I was working. The Eagles were playing in the background and my mind kept going back to that point of discomfort, when I recalledsomething that I had missed. The proof that had eluded me all those years—his eyes. The Eagles were so right about lying eyes.
It would have been so easy for me to walk away. I could have definitely raised the children on my own. But at that time, I was too scared—too scared because the children were too young; too scared because I still loved him; too scared because I didn’t want my worst fears to come true.
But if someone heard my story, they would think that I was definitely losing it. I couldn’t even bring myself to speak to my friends. Who would believe that a man like Bala could havean affair with a cook? An affair for a man like Bala, in itself seemed a remote possibility. But even given the case that he did have one, would it not have been with some svelte, sexy secretary in tight fitting skirts? Only, svelte secretaries are the Mills and Boons kind. In our land, secretaries in small companies were and still are most often, very ordinary people. As are cooks.As are our men.
Who would believe what I had come to learn? That sometimes, when men sought other women, it wasn’t for love. It was just to find another vent for their pleasure. And they played their cards well—not like the movies. In real life, there was rarely a maid who walked in and claimed right over the house, or the man.
And as for the wife, nothing changed—she got the same respect, holidays with children, partook in the decision-making—nothing really changed except the way she felt. And hurt.
How do you confront something like this? A story that you know is true but might sound ludicrous if shared?
How do you confront a cook about her relationship with your husband?
How do you tell people when everyone around you talks of your marriage as the one that thrives on ‘the space of togetherness.’ When they speak of how you’ve done a great job of raising a wonderful family, but don’t know what you’ve had to give up for it?
How do you confront a straying husband, when there are children to think about?”
Lalitha looked at the girls. They had their arms around Bala and were busy posing for photographs. They had always wanted a picture, just like Charlie’s Angels and they were persuading Bala to pose with them. He gave in, smiling indulgently at both of them.
How could she have traded that security they have for a doubt playing in her head? And what if she had been wrong? That is the one thing that had stopped her—her own fear. Her own doubts.
And, it really was never about proof. Proof doesn’t count when your heart has been ripped off its faith. When you know that you don’t want to do anything about it. When you let sleeping dogs lie, you simply blindfold your eyes and walk, cry, live, love… all in the darkness of doubt, hurt and trying to cope with forgetting.
Lalitha often thought of how she would be viewed in a feminist world. She would probably make a very bad case of women’s empowerment and its ideals. But mothers would understand; she consoled herself.
She couldn’t possibly deny her girls a great father because he was not a great husband. A husband and a father are two very different things and don’t necessarily have to coexist.Twenty-five years had taught her that.
“After all, this secret is with me. It’s mine alone.And all it has taken is endurance—without qualms, fighting or washing our dirty linen. The only pitfall of allowing your secret to die with you is carrying around a bleeding heart. And sad eyes. The bright side is that no one really looks past your eye. No one can diagnose a bleeding heart.”
Persistent voices in the background— “Ma!! Dreaming? We’ve been calling out to you for the last five minutes!”
Sahana and her exaggerations, thought Lalitha, shutting out the stream of thought and donning her everyday mask of happiness.
Bala walked up and put his arm around Lalitha, “I am the happiest man in the world today. And I have only you to thank the Gods for.”
Lalitha smiled and patted him. She had long since stopped looking for the man she had fallen in love with.
“I am not saying this because I am drunk, Lallu. I mean every word of it. And you are the one I want for my wife as long as my soul is alive.” He cupped her face in his hands. She closed her eyes and tilted the side of her face on his hands and closed her eyes tight. That was the only way she could prevent the tears from falling.
Ranjith smiled. Lalitha must be right about the hormones, he thought. There couldn’t possibly be a happier family.
Saree — unstitched fabric of 5 yards, worn by women all over India, matched with a blouse in the same colours.
About the Author:
Shobhana Kumar, 38, is a former student of Lawrence School, Lovedale, India and is a writer and a poet. Her first collection of poetry, ‘The Voices Never Stop’ was published by Writers Workshop, Kolkata. Her poems have also been featured in Kritya and Muse India, among others. She has also published four books of non-fiction—Coimbatore, The Emerging Indian Cosmopolis (2009), SIMA—A Journey through 75 years (2010), Lakshmi, An Inspiring Legacy (2011) and An Event Called Life— Dr. P.C. Thomas in Conversation with Shobhana Kumar.She is currently working on her second poetry manuscript.
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)
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