An Affair – Priya Hajela, Pune

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She rushes in, her shiny sari tied up above her round and firm belly, just below her tailored padded blouse. She walks with purpose, sari pinned in place, to my work area – the family room. “Rajma chawal with one subzi” I say without looking up. I can recognize the swish of her sari, the firm placement of her feet on the cement floor. “Ok Madam…but…” “If there’s no rajma, make karhi,” I say unfazed, still not looking up. “Madam…” This time I look up. Her face is still as unlined as the soaked and peeled almonds she presents me with everyday. Her forehead as smooth as the flour she kneads for rotis. It’s her eyes that are not hers that day. Her iris is almost transparent above the white, her pupils bounce big and small against the colorless background – it is as if her eyes have seen something they need to unsee – it’s fear.

“Madam, he’s gone, my son. He’s taken my special money and gone. There is no letter, no explaining. What do I do, Madam?” “Seema, calm yourself. Sit here. Saroj, pani leke aao,” I ask the distraught woman to sit beside me on the sofa; she crosses her legs and lowers herself to the floor. I ask the cleaning lady to bring her some water.
“Madam, he is having an affair, not even twenty that boy and doing…chee chee things with a married woman. Now husband found out and threatened to kill my boy and he has run. Phone is off. First it was on. He spoke to me. Said not to worry. How? Madam? What to do?”
“You told him to run away, didn’t you Seema? You told him to switch off his phone too? Good. Now where have you sent him?”
“No Madam. I didn’t do anything Madam.” She looked down as she spoke and then slowly raised her head back up to look at my mouth, her eyes not reaching mine. “Yes Madam – to my mother’s house in Goa. They can’t find him there.”
“Who is ‘they’? Who else is looking for him?”
“The police.”
“Why?”
“The husband called the police.”
“Why? Where’s his wife? She’s the one who committed adultery – not your son. They have to arrest her.”

“She…she is…actually Madam, it is my son. He is the adulterer. Indian law. The woman is never to blame. The woman is only man’s possession, nothing else. If she starts the affair, nothing – the other man is responsible – even an innocent boy like my Nilesh. The police told us…but Madam, that woman, she’s gone. No one has seen her. She lives in my basti only. Badtameez. Could not find anyone else’s son…”

Seema’s eyes begin their dance again and I don’t know what to say. I wonder about lunch but finally swallow twice and accept that I’m not getting any. I wonder about this law she’s talking about and realize that I know so little about the country I live in. I gaze at Seema, her yellow sari with roses along the edges, the matching glass bangles, her bare feet, dark and crooked and her neat hair pulled back and woven into a plait. Her eyes, still dancing, look back at me confused, perplexed. I can tell that she is wondering – should she have told me? Will I now call the police and tell them where her son is? After all, he has broken the law and they will chase him till they catch him. Then there is the matter of the missing woman. Is she in Goa as well? Or is she dead? If so, who’s killed her? I roll all this around in my head and find one gap, Seema’s husband. I’ve heard very little about him but surely in this time of crisis, she should be wetting his shirt and not my carpet with her tears.
“Seema, where is your husband?”
“Madam, you know his job is in Mumbai. He is there only,” she says, fingering her necklace made with tiny black beads and little bits of gold, a mangal sutra – a symbol of marriage.

“Why don’t you ask him to come back, Seema? He’ll be able to help you more, no?”
“No madam. If I call him, he will go straight to Goa and thrash my son himself and then take the police to him. He will swim across the mighty Mandovi River to help his children but when they have done the wrong thing, he will let them sink.”

Seema’s eyes are quiet as she looks down at the computer on my lap. She stares at it as if that machine has an answer for her. I quietly save my file, close the laptop and set it aside on a table to my left. I sip from the glass of water on another table to my right. I have dropped a whole glass of iced tea into my laptop, hence the separate tables. I rummage silently through my handbag, on the sofa next to me. I unzip the inside pocket and take out my diamond engagement ring and wedding ring. I slip them on my left hand ring finger and stand up, handbag on my shoulder Birkenstocks back on my feet.
“Let’s go, Seema. I want to meet this police officer who’s bothering you.”
“But Madam, what about your lunch?”

At last, someone is thinking about me. But I shake my head and beckon her with my hand. She rushes off to the kitchen, sari rustling, footsteps still firm, gets her handbag and follows me to the elevator. I press the button and call the driver. We go down together in silence. James has brought the car up to the portico. He’s not usually this prompt but he probably heard something in my voice. Seema gets in the front seat with the driver and I get in the back.

We drive to Yerawada Police Station, which contrary to what many believe is not the same or even adjoining or anywhere in the neighborhood of Yerawada Jail. But Yerawada Police Station itself, while not the place where both Gandhi and Sanjay Dutt were imprisoned for a time, is a bucolic, bungalow-looking structure built in a colonial hill station style – sloping roofs, large open spaces, high ceilinged rooms with bulbous-centered fans meandering in their orbit. If it weren’t for the large numbers of khaki clad people around, one could think it was a very socially active home to a large and somewhat subdued family – for while there are a lot of people, everyone speaks in hushed voices – someone may be listening – as they tell the person next to them what really happened.

We sit outside the office of ACP Shaikh, regular crime – as opposed to cyber crime. More police resources are devoted to cases of cyber crime, cyber stalking, data theft and what not, than to real crimes, or so it seems. The line outside ACP Shaikh’s office is shorter than the one outside ACP Cyber Crime – Ashish Gore’s office. Seema stands next to me, she refuses to sit. Her feet have lost their assurance and drag on the floor as I move from one seat to the next, moving closer and closer to the ACPs office. I notice tiny glass like beads appear on Seemas’s upper lip. She doesn’t wipe them off. I see them from my seated position, turning from circular to pear shaped as they prepare for the journey to her lips and then her chin. She still doesn’t lift up the end of her sari and make a quick sweep. She lets the drip continue, down her chin and onto her hefty neck, disappearing into her yellow blouse. Meanwhile we wait. As each new row of beads makes its way down, her blouse begins to stain along the neck line, little blotches of wet, slowly spreading, the humid air keeping the wetness trapped in the cloth, the slow fan doing nothing to speed drying. When we are three people from the ACPs door, Seema sits down on her haunches next to me. “Madam, we go. I will manage – in my way.”

I am insistent. We’ve waited this long. We have to meet him now. But I can see that Seema is on edge. Her yellow blouse is now a light brown for being wet. Her sari, always crisp no matter the season is droopy, the folds stretched out and laid on top of each other, misshapen. I smooth my own shirt and linen pants down, neither in pristine condition either, but then I’m not drenched in my own guilt. Is that what it is, guilt? Has Seema done something that’s making her so afraid? I look at her, still crouched by me. Her feet are flat on the floor. She can sit this way for hours, her sari tucked up around her, covering her crotch securely. I ask her to stand up knowing that her sari is getting even more crumpled than it already is. We need to at least look presentable when we meet the ACP, the Assistant Commissioner of Police. She shakes her head and stares at the marble chips on the floor.

When it’s finally our turn to meet the ACP, Seema stands up, lets the sari fall into place, touches her eyes with her fingers and places a polite kiss on the bundle of skin and bone. Thus protected, we enter the ACP’s air-conditioned office, the Voltas AC humming above him, the temperature set to 18 degrees Celsius. On the wall on one side of his desk is a map of Pune City, his area highlighted in an orange marker. My eyes magnetically get drawn to Seema’s neighborhood, closer to the police station than my own, not far from here, in fact.

“Yes, Madam. What can I do for you?” ACP Shaikh indicates to both of us to sit on metal chairs with cane seats and backs. Both have strings loose and I feel little pricks in my upper thigh and my middle back at the same time. I pull away from the back of the chair and lift my thigh up ever so slightly. I don’t want to offend the police officer. As I adjust myself, I stare at the newspaper, The Times of India on the ACPs desk. Seema looks at me, waiting for me to say something.

“Sir, this is Seema, um…Mrs. Matthews and I am Mrs. Sobti. We have come to you about the matter of her son and one Mrs. Joseph…”
“Yes. You can stop. I know the matter. Do you know where Mrs. Joseph is now, Mrs. Matthews? And where is your husband?” I jump in before Seema can say anything.
“Why, Sir, you make it sound like her husband has had something to do with Mrs. Joseph. It was her son, Sir. Her husband works in Mumbai. He’s not even here.”
“Madam, I can’t blame you but you’ve been made a fool…”
“All lies he’s telling Madam. All lies. My Nilesh has been foolish. But why the police is after him? She trapped him. She’s the culprit.”
“Neither she nor your son are to blame, Mrs. Matthews. It is your husband. He has run away with Mrs. Joseph.”

I turn to look at Seema, embarrassed that she has to find out about her philandering husband in this way. But Seema has transformed. Her sweat soaked blouse is magically dry and back to its sunny yellow. Her sari has turned from depressed to radiant. Her eyes are calm and still. “Let’s go, Madam,” is all she says as she walks out, footsteps firm once again, sari swishing with purpose.

I thank ACP Shaikh. He gives me a puzzled look and then a shoulder shrug. I look back at him and smile. The newspaper on his desk screams this headline – ‘Adultery No Longer A Criminal Affair – Supreme Court Rules.

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