അവശേഷം

അവശേഷം

രാത്രി മുഴുവൻ മഴ പെയ്തു. അത് കേട്ട് ഞാൻ ഉറങ്ങാതെ കിടന്നു. ജനവാതിലിലൂടെ ചന്ദ്രനെ കാണാം. ഒരു നിഴൽചിത്രം പോലെ മുറ്റത്തു നിന്ന മരത്തിന്റെ രൂപവും. അതിന്റെ ഇലകൾ കാറ്റിലാടി. അവയ്ക്കിടയിലൂടെ മഴത്തുള്ളികൾ മുത്തുമാല പോലെ പെയ്തിറങ്ങി.

“കാർത്തിക്…” ഞാൻ പതുക്കെ വിളിച്ചു.
“ങ്ങും”
“ദാ, മഴ പെയ്‌യുന്നു…”
അവൻ തിരിഞ്ഞു കിടന്നു. നിലാവെളിച്ചത്തിൽ അവന്റെ നെഞ്ചിൽ എഴുന്നുനിന്ന രോമങ്ങൾ തിളങ്ങി. ഞാൻ മുഖമുരസ്സവേ, അവ മോഹം കൊണ്ട് വിറച്ചു. മുറിയിൽ കുളിരു നിറഞ്ഞു. അവന്റെ നിശ്വ്വാസം കാറ്റിന്റെ അലർച്ചയായി എന്റെ കാതുകളെ തുളച്ചിറങ്ങി.
*

ഞാൻ ഉറക്കം ഉണരുമ്ബോൾ പുലർച്ചയായിട്ടില്ല. ആകാശത്തിലപ്പോഴും നീലവെളിച്ചം. കൈകാലുകൾ നീട്ടുമ്പോൾ സുഖമുള്ള വേദന. അവന്റെ താടിരോമം കോറിയ നീറ്റലിന്റെ വരകളിലൂടെ ആഹ്ലാദം സിരകളിൽ ഊറിയിറങ്ങി.

കട്ടിലിലിരുന്നു കാർത്തിക് ഷർട്ടിന്റെ ബട്ടണുകൾ ഇടുകയാണ്. ഞാൻ എഴുന്നേറ്റിരുന്നു.
“Hi ” അവൻ പറഞ്ഞു. “I was trying to not wake you.”
“നീ പോകുകയാണോ?” രാത്രിയിൽ കംബിളി പോലെ തോന്നിയ തണുപ്പ് ഒരു ഇരുമ്ബുറയുടെ ഭാരത്തോടെ എന്റെ തോളുകളിലിരുന്നു.
“Yeah, എയർപോർട്ടിൽ നിന്ന് വിദ്യയേയും ഋഷിയെയും pick ചെയ്യണം.”
“എത്ര മണിക്കാണ് ഫ്ലൈറ്റ്?”
“എട്ടു മണിക്ക്.” അവൻ സോക്‌സും ഷൂസുമിട്ട്, ലാപ്ടോപ്പ് ബാഗും കൈയിലെടുത്തു. ഞാൻ നൈറ്റ്ഡ്രസ്സ് ഇട്ട് ഇറങ്ങാൻ തുടങ്ങിയപ്പോൾ അവൻ പറഞ്ഞു, “വേണ്ട, go back to sleep. ഒരു രണ്ടു ദിവസത്തേക്ക് പറ്റുമെന്ന് തോന്നുന്നില്ല – പക്ഷെ ഞാൻ വിളിക്കാം. I love you.”

പുറത്തു മഴ തോർന്നിരിക്കുന്നു. മണ്ണിൽ അവിടവിടെയായി കെട്ടി കിടക്കുന്ന വെള്ളത്തിൽ എങ്ങു നിന്നോ പറന്നു വന്ന പ്ലാസ്റ്റിക് കവറുകളും കടലാസു കഷണങ്ങളും പൊന്തിക്കിടന്നു.
“Love you too.” അടഞ്ഞ വാതിൽ നോക്കി ഞാൻ പറഞ്ഞു.

Couple’s Massage

This story of mine was the Runner Up in the Elle Fiction Awards 2013 and has been published in the October 2013 issue of Elle India magazine.

Ramesh and Nimmi are not the most adventurous of couples. Their marriage was arranged seven years ago by a group of enthusiastic mamas and mamis and since then, they have led a peaceful, if unexciting, life together in a third floor apartment on Bannerghetta Road.

Their routine is humdrum – Nimmi wakes up like clockwork at six-thirty every morning, sets the milk to boil and brushes her teeth. The shrill whistle from the milk boiler wakes Ramesh up at six-forty. He switches it off and picks up the paper. While Nimmi makes coffee and breakfast, he claims the bathroom. They are creatures of habit – their kitchen is run like a fixed-menu restaurant. On Mondays, Nimmi makes idlies and sambar. Dosas on Tuesdays, upma on Wednesdays, cereal and toast on Thursdays and a McDonald’s breakfast of hash browns and muffins on Fridays. They are a little bolder on weekends – Nimmi even ventures to make puri-sagu or channa-bhature. They never pack lunch.

They leave the house by nine-fifteen every day. On the way to work, Ramesh drops Nimmi off at the bus stop where her company bus picks her up. It is seven-thirty or later when he returns, picking up Nimmi from the same bus stop. Sometimes they make a small detour on the way home and go grocery shopping at the Nilgiris supermarket two streets away. Dinner is always rice and dal with a single vegetable stir-fry. Both of them enjoy sitcoms and watch Two and a Half Men regularly – well, at least until Charlie Sheen was on air. (They disapprove heavily of Ashton Kutcher.) Nimmi falls asleep on the recliner at eleven, and Ramesh immediately switches to CNN or Ten Sports. Every night, he wakes her up and they move to the bedroom no later than midnight.

They make love regularly twice a week – once mid-week and once on weekends. Ramesh is a gentle lover and Nimmi is receptive, if not proactive, in their fumblings. The one unspoken question in their life is the absence of children. Neither of them particularly wants to be a parent – but like everything else they are accustomed to, having children seems to be something automatically expected of them. Seven years is too long a time – their parents have given up making hopeful hints. The thought is there – like a gray mist between them – but they have not said it out loud to each other. However, they have not yet started worrying about infertility or considered taking tests.

Today is their seventh wedding anniversary. It is a Saturday.

Nimmi wakes up a little earlier than usual. She has bought an extra packet of milk to make payasam – their annual anniversary dessert. She owns a gleaming microwave, but has never considered baking. She goes about chopping carrots and beans for their anniversary-special fried rice. This is always accompanied by raita and a cauliflower fry. (Ramesh dislikes gobi Manchurian immensely.)

Suddenly, Ramesh appears at the kitchen door. This surprises her – it is his usual newspaper hour, even on anniversary day.

“What’s the matter?” she asks.

He is red-faced, like a schoolboy caught watching porn.

“I’ve bought us something…”

She is now astonished – he has already taken her out the previous evening and bought her a kurti of her choice with matching jewelry. The new Lee Child novel that she had ordered for him on Flipkart had been delivered a day early, but had still delighted him. One gift is all they give each other every year.

This is new territory – she doesn’t know how to react. But she feels a warm thrill in the small, light hairs at the back of her neck.

“What is it?” she asks, a little breathlessly.

He hands her a purple and gold coupon. She flips it open and reads, her lips moving silently.

“SPAce The Spa… couples’ massage… exotic oils… crumbling rose petals… hot towels… rejuvenating… refreshing… awakening your sensuality… ”

She feels her face burn. She can hardly look at him in the eye.

He seems to sense the heat of her shame and stammers,

“I-it was just an impulse buy…I saw their offer on Snapdeal and thought… we have never done something like this before… so I thought maybe… it doesn’t matter if you don’t want to go– ”

Her face is flushed – she is wondering wildly what has happened to him. A couples’ massage! There is something so intimate and furtive about the very phrase that makes her heart beat faster. She tries to imagine the two of them lying down next to each other in a strange room – but she cannot conjure up the images. The tumult of feelings that rise in her leaves her shaken. It is crazy, insane…

Abruptly, she says, “I don’t mind. Let’s go.”

*

They drive there in the car and find a parking spot two streets away. It is a small place next to a high-end Chinese restaurant. An impossibly short girl named Anna ushers them cheerfully into a warmly-lit lounge. The décor is subtle and soothing – unidentifiable instrumental music in the background, dried flowers arranged in long-necked vases, abstract art on the walls, soft pouffes and couches to sit back on… Nimmi thinks it is very tastefully done. Some of her awkwardness disappears. She even stops worrying whether someone they know would see them there.

“This is Rebecca and this is Twinkle – they will be your masseuses today…” Anna introduces two small, fine-boned girls.

It is only later, when Rebecca and Twinkle usher them into a spacious, dimly-lit room with high ceilings, that Nimmi realizes that Ramesh’s masseuse is also a woman. For a second, she wonders if she is jealous – but before she can sort out her thoughts, the girls leave them in the bathroom to change.

In all their seven years together, they have never fully undressed in front of each other – Nimmi always wears a nightie to bed and Ramesh sleeps in pajamas.

They know by touch, the familiar lines and curves of each other’s bodies, but feel strangely shy in front of each other. In the warm golden light, Nimmi notices the flex of Ramesh’s chest muscles as he pulls the bathrobe around him. There is a small brown mole on the right side of his chest that she has never noticed before. This new knowledge excites her. She wants to put out a hand and touch it, but he has pulled the robe tightly around himself. She undresses quickly, shielding herself as much as she can with her clothes, and dons the robe. There is a soft tap on the door.

Without looking at each other, they walk out and lie face down on two adjacent beds. The room is so dimly-lit that she can hardly make out where her masseuse is. She senses, rather than sees, his presence on the other bed.

Soft hands drop warm oil on her. She tenses up for an instant as the hands move over her naked back, but there is a soft murmur at her ear,

“Madam, you must relax…”

And she does. The hands do their magic – her shoulders, back and legs are massaged gently, almost lovingly. Her head swims with the overpowering scent of lavender and rose. Fingers run through her scalp, arousing sensations that she didn’t know existed. There is soft music being played – she cannot recognize the piece. She turns her head to the left and sees his indistinct silhouette on the bed. The girl is standing beside him, moving her hands over his back.

What is he feeling? She suddenly thinks.

This is something she has never thought about before. What does he feel as the small, pale hands move all over his back, kneading his muscles, tracing the contours of his body? What can he be thinking? Does the girl tickle his ear? Do her fingers play on the back of his knee? Is he aroused at her touch? Nimmi thinks that she can hear her husband moan softly.

She suddenly feels dizzy. And sick.

The masseuse stops, rather abruptly. She sits up, feeling cold and exposed.

“Thank you madam… you fill find towels in the bathroom” the girl murmurs and withdraws.

Ramesh’s girl – yes, she thinks of her like that, not knowing which one was Rebecca and which one was Twinkle – is winding down. Helping him put on his robe. Nimmi averts her eyes and moves to the bathroom, wiping down the oil and dressing swiftly. By the time Ramesh enters the bathroom, she is ready to leave.

They are both silent on the way back home. They do not meet each other’s eye, or ask each other about the experience. Anna has offered them a free Swedish massage if they decide to go back – they are not sure if they will.

Nimmi watches Ramesh out of the corner of her eye – he looks just the same. Yet, she feels that for the first time ever, she cannot read him. She gazes at the clean lines of his face and the back of his neck, where the collar of his T-shirt is awry. She notices a couple of gray hairs on his temple that she has never seen before. This is a strangely different Ramesh. A Ramesh whose eyes hide secret fantasies. Whose body carries the shadowy touch of a stranger’s hands.

She has a terrible urge to weep. To burst into tears and rage at him.

But she doesn’t. She keeps gazing out of the window. And when he asks her if they should drop by Nilgiris to stock up on provisions, she agrees. They buy five kilos of their usual sona masoori rice, packets of atta and dosa batter and the same brand of cereal as always.

But she does not fall asleep at eleven. She lies awake long after he has slept, listening to his even breathing, weeping silently for what they have lost.

CCD Sojourn

CCD Sojourn

Ananya clambered out of the car and helped Akshay out. I slammed the door shut.

“Kayfe Coffee Day” Ananya read aloud.

“It’s cafe – not kayfe” I snapped. She fell silent.

“Look here –“ I told them, “ I am meeting someone. Someone important. So you two behave yourselves, okay? Just sit quietly and don’t make a fuss.”

Ananya nodded vigorously, her eyes straying. I strode off to find a seat.

Behind me, I could hear her whispering to Akshay, pointing out the Christmas decorations and the hanging lights. I lead the way to a cosy nook that could seat five people. Akshay climbed onto the cane couch with difficulty, his thumb stuck firmly in his mouth.

“Don’t suck your thumb! You are nearly six!” I snapped. He looked at me wide-eyed, without moving his thumb. I ignored them while I fixed my hair. But through the corner of my eye, I could see Ananya examining the plump cushions delightedly, bouncing up and down gently.

“Akka, is this a five star hotel?” she asked.

“This?” I scoffed, “No… this is just a cafe.”

“Ca-fe” she repeated carefully.

Shyam joined us 15 minutes later and looked quizzically at the kids.

“My cousins from Bellary….” I muttered, “Amma insisted that I take them out.”

“What do you guys want?” I asked, passing over a menu.

Ananya pored over the menu, her eyes growing rounder.

“185 rupees for coffee…”

I flushed with embarrassment as Shyam raised an eyebrow.

“Don’t look at the price… here, let me order for you…” I snatched the menu back.

Shyam and I tried to talk, but I was conscious of them the entire time – how Akshay spilt his Cafe Frappe all over his lap while reaching towards the too-low table. How Ananya got her hand stuck inside her glass while trying to fish out the ice cubes at the bottom. How they surreptitiously wiped their sticky hands on the cream leather couch. How they filled their pockets with paper napkins to take home…

The evening was ruined.

Room for Everyone

Miss Kurien was announcing the names of those who had been selected for the annual school play.

“Duryodhana – Mathew Joseph” she called out.

There were whoops and cheers from Mathew’s crowd – a hefty boy with disheveled clothes and an unconsciously arrogant, laughing face swaggered forward and stood to the teacher’s left.

“Yudhishtira – Anil Varma”

Anil, class prefect and model schoolboy, walked forward quietly, trying to look surprised and hide his smile at the same time.

No surprises so far, Manu thought to himself. He twitched with impatience. When would she call out his name?

“Bhima – Vivek Kurup”

A stout, good-natured fellow high-fived his friend and walked forward, cocking a smirk at Mathew.

“Krishna – “

Pradyumna was already out of his seat and halfway up the aisle before Miss Kurien had finished calling his name. He grinned at the girls, flicking his hair back out of his eyes – even the teacher smiled at his delighted face.

Sumit (class topper and Miss Kurien’s not-so-secret pet) was Arjuna; Vidyut and Ahaan (the Pretty Boys, everyone teased them) were Nakula and Sahadeva; Preethi was Draupadi – as she walked up confidently, a collective sigh went through the class, and she blushed.

Miss Kurien had come to the end of her list. The chosen ones surrounded her, clamoring for details, and the class was dismissed. People were stringing out of the class in ones and twos, some grumbling, some excited.

Manu let himself be pushed along. His felt as though he had bitten wool.

He had not been selected.

Should I go and ask Miss Kurien if she can include me somehow? He wondered.

But something – he was too young to recognize the cold steel of self-respect – held him back.

Most of all, he was worrying about Nani. Nani, with her crinkly smile and faded blue cataract eyes. How would he bring Nani to watch the show? What would he say when she asked him what role he was playing?

He kicked at a stone gloomily. He had to think of something.

images

Two weeks later, Manu ushered Nani into the fourth row of the school auditorium to watch the St. Joseph Convent’s rendering of the Mahabharata.

He sat down next to her. She had dressed up in her best silk saree, and smelt faintly of Cuticura powder. She felt for his hand and grasped it.

“What role are you playing, Manu-da?” she whispered, squinting at the stage.

And Manu replied proudly, “Sanjaya.”

Journey’s End

Navin was fifteen minutes late and Padma was aware of every minute of it. At one point, she had thought of slipping out of the restaurant and leaving; but he arrived just as she had made up her mind.

“Why did you call me?” he asked almost as soon as he sat down, his expression inscrutable.

“Because, “ she breathed, clasping her fingers nervously together, “because what is between us is not over. Because I want closure.”

“Closure.” he repeated, “What do you want, Padma?”

“I want to talk.”

“Then talk.” He said simply, leaning back in his chair.

She fell silent for a minute, trying to gather her thoughts. What had she expected would happen? Polite smiles? Awkward silences? Anything, but this. His manner was brusque, almost annoyed at having been summoned. She chose her words carefully,

“I want you to forgive me.”

Still, he said nothing. She went on,

“I know I behaved badly 3 years ago… and I have laid the blame on you. But believe me when I say that I have not been able to let the matter rest… ever so often, I think of you, and us… and I… it’s taken me a long time to accept that I was grossly unfair to you. But I have recognized and accepted that now…”

“And you called me here to tell me that?” he sounded almost puzzled.

“Yes, and to ask you to forgive me.”

When he did not respond even after a minute, she said with some impatience,

“Surely that must mean something to you! Haven’t you suffered all these years, like I have? I know you have! I have been reading your stories…”

“What I write about has nothing to do with my life. So, don’t be misled by that.” He said blandly.

“Perhaps not. But I know you… like no one else does.” She said with a touch of sadness.

“No, you don’t.” His voice was like a whiplash. She flinched.

“Not anymore.” He said.

Tears pricked her eyelids. She sniffed and discreetly touched her hanky to her eyes. “I suppose I deserve that…”

His smile was perfunctory, caustic.

Silence ensued for some more minutes. He pushed the food around his plate, making a pretence of eating, then suddenly burst out,

“What did I do wrong? What heinous crime did I commit that made you just disappear out of my life one day?”

She said gently, “We were having problems before that…”

“Yes, yes… I could have understood –even accepted –a slow drifting apart. But that scene in the pastry shop! And that message afterwards asking me to never contact you again! What was the deal there? I mean, what suddenly happened?”

“Nothing, “ she said earnestly, “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. You did nothing wrong. It was all me.”

“But why? Why, in God’s name Padma?” he asked, frustrated, “We were best friends!”

“Yes, for years and years.” She smiled wryly. “You’d been with me through everything –you’d kept me sane in my worst years. And I kept hoping that some day, I could repay you –give you the same kind of love and support that you had given me; add some value to your life…”

His expression was as inscrutable as ever, but something moved in his eyes.

“But you were the same –like, like a goddamn ice statue. You didn’t

seem to care whether I was there or not. You didn’t seem to want me. I tried to understand –and accept that you were incapable of expressing your feelings… and I did that successfully for a long time. But somewhere, I reached breaking point…”

“Ice melts.” He said matter-of-factly.

“Don’t be melodramatic!” she said, a trifle embarrassed.

“This situation is so melodramatic, it warrants it, don’t you think?”

She shrugged. Her patience was wearing thin –they had gotten nowhere.

“You said it yourself, Padma… I was always like that. I didn’t change.”

“No, you didn’t. But perhaps I wanted change. Perhaps I naively assumed that my being there would help you change.” She said wearily.

He said nothing.

It was past nine thirty. She signaled the waiter for the bill.

“I want you to put your thoughts to rest, as far as we are concerned –now don’t tell me you don’t care; clearly, you care enough to have come out here when I called you after all these years.”

“Yes, I care,” he said quietly. “I have thought about you often, mostly wondering what went wrong.”

“Well, now you know,” she said, wondering if he would shake hands with her as she left. Wondering what his hand would feel like. Strange, wasn’t it, that in all their years of growing up together, they had never touched each other? She wondered if this had occurred to him –the fact that they had never touched each other in any way.

Except that one day.

They had met at the canteen and he had sat down opposite her, resting his arms on the table. They had spoken of many things and nothing, she didn’t remember what. But as they talked, she drew a small spiral pattern on the bend of his left arm, near his elbow. All the while they talked, she kept embellishing the pattern with dots and shading. He had not questioned or stopped her even once, in itself an extraordinary event.

Later, the same day, they had met at the bus stop outside the campus by accident –they never planned these things. They had boarded the same bus, and she had noticed with a heady rush of joy that he had not wiped off her drawing on his elbow. The bus was nearly empty. He joined her in her seat –the second extraordinary event of the day –but sat with his legs turned towards the aisle, so that nothing –not even the edge of her dupatta –touched the sleeve of his shirt.

She could still remember the wind that had blown into her face that day, how she had pushed strands of flying hair behind her ear; the way he had stood up, looking down at her while she stood there drenched in happiness and all the while, her heart sang that he had not wiped off the mark that she had put on him.

Sitting across him in the restaurant, she wondered if he remembered all this –did he remember it all in such vivid detail? Dare she ask?

But the moment had passed. He broke the awkward silence.

“So…erm… you’re saying we’re good then.”

She nodded, gathering up her clutch-purse.

“I need some time to digest all this… I need to process this. You come back after all these years, saying that it was all a misunderstanding… how am I supposed to react? You think that your coming here has helped me, but in reality…. I don’t know. I feel like I haven’t got any answers. What does this mean? You coming back after all this time…”

Alarm bells went off in her head. What did he mean by her ‘coming back’?

“Rajesh does not know I’m here tonight.” She said abruptly.

“Oh.”

“He’s out for a business dinner –I’ve told him that I am meeting a friend. If he knew it was you…” she let her voice trail off, letting the meaning hit him.

“He doesn’t approve?” All the old scorn came back into his voice, underlined by a tinge of bitterness.

“No, “she said flatly, “What he knows about us is what I’ve told him; and so far, you’ve been the bad guy. He doesn’t know I’ve changed my mind –and it would be difficult for him to understand or accept why I’ve done that.”

“So, let me remain tainted black in the eyes of the hero.” he said mockingly.

“Yes.”

The car pulled up in front of the lobby. She turned to him with a smooth smile,

“So… we’re good then.”

“Yep.” He said, not trusting himself to say any more.

“Okay, then… take care.”

And she was gone.

Just like she had gone all those years ago –abruptly; deceiving him with her promises of understanding and closure. Leaving him with more questions than answers.

parting

***

Padma sat in the car, a great sense of peace descending upon her. That had been most satisfactory.

She wondered what Shreyaa would say to this. In her irritatingly soul-piercing voice, she would say,

“Bullshit, Paddy…You were in love with him all those years; the poor sod had no clue and you just paid him back! You paid back his ignorance of your love by walking away, and letting him think it was something he’d done. And every time he gets close to forgetting, you pretend to go back and settle things!”

She was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

What Navin and she had had once was something that went beyond a cheap love story. They had been soul mates. Not like brother and sister, no. But not love! Never that. She had not allowed herself to think that then –nor would she allow anyone else to besmirch that relationship that way now.

“You are wrong, Shravs.” She said aloud. And wondered why she felt tearful.

“Sorry, madam?” said the driver, confused.

“So am I, Raju… so am I.” She said.