On that day she wore her new bangles, the ones her mother got her from Kancheepuram. Newfound wealth, that is what it felt like.
Some days she had to walk to school with a hole in her shoe. Other days she had to make do with dry bread for lunch. No one said the words out loud but she knew what they were thinking when she looked at either of them accusingly. Her parents were putting every penny away towards her dowry. It is all for your own good, yes? Her grandfather had smiled through his weather-beaten tear-stained eyes, looking at her bravely.
“Did you face the British with this kind of resolve? How did we ever get independence?”
“I don’t understand this fascination with gold. Investment? No. More like crazed addiction.” He said.
“Do you think I’ll look better with all those ornaments?”
“Well your husband better think so. My own wife, I married her. Not her gold. These days! Hmmph. This is how free we are now.”
So four months after her twenty-second birthday it was her turn to become the bride.
The women arrived, his friends and relatives. They examined everything and gave everything the okay. Her silk sari, her ornaments, her hair and make-up. What a relief, her mother signaled from the other side of the courtyard. Devi wondered if this meant that he would like it too.
She had just a glimpse of him as he arrived. The very first live one. She was pleased to note that he looked the same as he did in his photographs. Once she’d given the okay and he’d done the same, the elders fixed a date for the wedding. That was just a few weeks ago; a real rush job by any standards. Now she waited for the priest to arrive.
Her mother entered her room and closed the door. “My only daughter, I will miss you so much!” She hugged her and wiped tears.
“Mom, Amma, I am just moving to the next district!”
“For how long? Won’t you go onsite with him? And even if you don’t, you know how it will be. I will have to come bearing gifts, and that too after raising several requests through formal channels just to see you, my own daughter.”
“Didn’t you say we were going to change all that? That you were going to make sure things would be different for us?”
“One can hope and dream.”
“So you lied?” Devi looked worried, “These people aren’t all that progressive then?”
“Devi, you know I tried, you must always believe that I tried. I can’t assure you anything, but just think. They proceeded with this alliance even after they knew I am a published poet. How many such ‘good families’ can we find in south India?”
Good families that didn’t test every established rule under the guise of being progressive.
Devi smiled, feeling reassured. She recalled a conversation they’d had when going through the selection process.
“Just a photo? The boy won’t come to meet her? Is that called being progressive?” Her mother had asked.
“They would love for him to meet her but he is a civil engineer working onsite. He has just the weekends off. His parents say they’ll fly him down at our cost if we are that particular.”
The words hung there. The exchange of photographs was the last step, there was to be no other.
“Maybe he can call her and talk to her,” her mother suggested.
“He can, but the company he works for should agree to his request for special infrastructure adjustment based on this unique need,” Her father interjected, sarcastically.
Her father never did hop on the ‘let’s get progressive’ bandwagon all that eagerly.
So there he was, finally. Dressed in a simple shirt and the traditional dhoti. The men always dressed down for Indian weddings. The shirt would come off too, at the behest of the priest who would then also start with the lewd jokes. “Look! She’s looking at you. Pity you can’t do the same!” Those jokes would continue until the event would be declared a success and it would be time for them all to go home. Devi knew because she’d attended weddings before. It was going to be hard not to laugh, but that was a strict no no. Only the men were allowed to laugh.
Her little brother knocked once and entered without waiting for a reply. “The priest is here. Your exams begin.”
“Stop calling it that!” Devi chided.
“Remember what Appa said? If you laugh you fail!”
Her mother sent him away and turned to her once again. “Look Devi, this is the last private moment we’ll have for days. Do you want to tell me anything?”
“Okay,” her mother sniffed, “Here, this is my gift to you.”
Her mother slipped her a piece of paper. “What is this? Oh mom! You edited my poem for me? Thank you! What did you think?”
“I’m jealous!” Her mom said, “Good thing you are leaving!”
“You are just saying that!” Devi said, finally feeling emotional. This really meant something. Her mother the renowned poet had read her work. She thought it worthy of an edit! A better gift she could not have asked for. “Next time I will write something that won’t involve a field trip!”
“You will have to, perhaps. The chains of responsibility and all that.”
Yes, perhaps there would be no more trips to remote villages on the pretext of ‘social work’, to scout for subjects for her poetry.
“Keep on writing dear. Every day!”
Her father showed up then, looking worried. “What is keeping you? Everybody is waiting, come on!”
They hugged, mother and daughter, while her dad watched impatiently. “Plenty of time for that. You don’t want to miss the auspicious hour!”
The ceremony began bang on schedule. She sat next to him demurely, just as she was instructed. He looked at her and smiled broadly and a few people sniggered. She kept her head bent low. “Oh my God!” She thought, “Mother will so happy!”
The priest enquired politely if he should begin, then rattled off a string of hymns in Sanskrit. The fire in front of them that burned low, was kept fed with spoonsful of clarified butter. Out of it rose embers that caused her eyes to water. Her husband-in-progress offered her a handkerchief. She took it and the priest nodded approvingly.
“I see you came well prepared. For everything I hope?” The priest began and the men laughed. Devi looked at the fire turning just as red. And so it began, her torment. She couldn’t even ask to be excused to go to the bathroom. Another strict no no. Besides, what would come out of a woman fasting for twenty-four hours and more? Nothing out of nowhere.
A few more hours and then there’d be a reprieve. A change of attire. Some food. She waited for that moment, all her energy focused on that, so that she forgot where she was or what was actually going on. The fire seemed to fuel her hunger. To make matters worse, someone kept offering him plates full of delicacies and juices. He indulged a few times. She wanted to cry at how unfair that was. The priest joked about how she was perhaps marrying a glutton. He realized his folly and apologized. “I’d forgotten she hasn’t eaten anything! Sorry!”
He stopped after that. She would have said it was okay, except she wasn’t allowed to open her mouth just yet.
When it came time for them to utter each other’s names – that was when she’d be allowed to open her mouth. As was the ritual a young one, any child, would whisper the names into their ears and then they’d utter it out loud along with some lines in Sanskrit the priest would have them repeat. So finally, with a growling stomach and ember filled eyes, she said his name weakly. The child had whispered something but she knew his name already, “Dheeraj Kumar blah blah” she repeated dutifully, wondering why everyone was laughing again. Did the Sanskrit come out wrong?
“I don’t care what you call him in your free time. Here full names only!” The priest said. She blushed. “Didn’t this child do his job properly?” The priest mock-glared at the little boy who was laughing like he’d been tickled.
“No, no!” She then rattled it off, she knew that too.
Then he did the same, making no mistakes. She felt so stupid right then, but she had no time to dwell on that. It was time to walk around the fire with him holding her waist. A hush fell over the crowd as it always does. This meant the ceremony was about over. The parents would get emotional and the crowd would let them have their moment. The blessings in the form of flowers would come flying at them from all directions, now and again when he’d fill the partition in her hair with red vermillion and then tie the sacred yellow thread around her neck. The Mangalsutra. It was all over in the next fifteen minutes.
The next moment her brother ran up to her with some juice, which she drank gratefully like a starved elephant. People were crowding all around now, with their blessings. Then Dheeraj finally looked at her and sighed and said, “Hello Mrs. Kumar,” and she laughed, then looked worriedly at her father who nodded his okay so she laughed some more. She wasn’t Mrs. Kumar technically. He was just making fun of her for forgetting to say his full name.
Someone carted her away right then. Time for a wardrobe change, Miss Bride. The next ritual wasn’t as strenuous. Now that they were husband and wife, they could converse all they wanted and she could laugh as well. It was all allowed, even eating and bathroom visits. Soon she forgot what that freedom meant, the torture from just a few hours ago now only a vague memory. She didn’t want food! She just wanted to keep the conversation going with this man who was now the most interesting thing on earth. They whispered over the embers and the priest’s relentless chanting.
Back for another wardrobe change and she had to answer inquisitive questions about what they’d been chatting about. “This and that,’ she said. He was telling her about how sorry he was that he would have to leave that evening, right after the ceremony. “Site issues”. In spite of all his planning and hoping that things might be different, duty beckoned. He would be back in two days. Then they’d take off to Mumbai for their honeymoon. Mumbai and Goa for a week and then back to Tamil Nadu.
He then told her more about what they were building in the deep south, closer to Kerala. That was all. Nothing that qualified as romantic like “You look tremendous,” and “Can’t wait to get my hands on you.” She thanked God for that. That would have been so cheesy. Some people liked that but not her. Those were stock sentences people forced you to say thinking that is what everyone expects. He went with the flow. He was okay.
When she told her cousin, ‘the popular girl’, that, she yawned and went away, flipping her long tresses over her shoulders like a princess. “No civil engineers for me!”
And now that would be etched in everyone’s guidebook for how to pick a husband. “Civil Engineers are boring, unless you like this kind of blah…blah…” There would be a sudden dip in their stock, for no perceivable reason.
But enough of that. Time to meet the in-laws.
Her mother-in-law was nothing like Dheeraj; he took after his dad. Short and wiry, she smiled from ear to ear and said. “Welcome to the family!” Then she pinched her cheeks and said, “I am so lucky to get such a fair bride!” And went on to say, “Did he tell you, you look beautiful? He is so shy!”
Devi just smiled, and her new mother went on, “He is a gem you know! Gem! You will be so happy! You lucky girl!”
Devi said, “Thank you for those kind blessings,” Like she had been instructed.
“Well we will see you in a week or so, yes?”
After the honeymoon she was to spend time with them before she’d join her husband again.
“Yes,” She nodded.
“We’ll chat! You will tell me all about Mumbai and Goa?”
Her father-in-law showed up then. “Are you frightening her already with your intrusive questions?” He asked jokingly.
Devi did a namaste, as was appropriate. “Bless you, bless you!” He said. “We are a small family, just like yours. One older brother also married and happily settled in the north. Calcutta. He couldn’t come!” It was clear that was a sore point. “Let us see, maybe they will make it when you are here before you go off to Kerala.”
“Looking forward to meeting them,” Devi said, perplexed. Her brother-in-law and his wife and two children, would there be enough rooms in her in-law’s little Bungalow? She had been there just once for the engagement ceremony that took place without the prospective groom present. Someone gave her a tour of the house, a two-storied three-bedroom house they referred to as ‘The Bungalow’.
“Yes. Me too. Come let us have our first meal together.”
“Stop that, fool! That is now just her and her husband. She’ll dine with us later!” His wife pulled her in another direction. “That man has dementia. His other son will not be coming now and he said so already many, many times. Come now, don’t keep your new husband waiting!”
“Of course not! Devi said, even more perplexed.
The table was set. The spread was sumptuous, all laid out neatly on banana leaves as green as perfect envy. Dheer, as he’d asked her to call him, was already seated. He stood up when he saw her approach. “Oh my son! Look how polite he is! You have to admire that! Say thank you!”
“Thank you and sorry to keep you waiting!” Devi dutifully obeyed.
“It was your dad. He kept on complaining about your missing brother.”
“It is okay mom!”
“Okay then! I have deposited her. I will go now,” she turned to leave. The photographers took their place in front of them, clicking away, capturing each mouthful. Dheer laughed, “Who instructed them to click this? Annoying!”
“Sir, one more pose, why don’t you feed her.”
“What!” Devi looked up, shocked. “No!”
“I see what this is! It is their turn now. The priest is done. Shock them right back. Feed me.”
So she did just that and the crowd went wild. They had a good meal, after that. Dheer managed to get all his doubts cleared about whether or not he’d married a person who could cook. What did she learn to cook? What did she like cooking? Did she like cooking? What was her favorite dish? So she asked him the same questions in return, playing it safe. He asked her if she knew how to make a particular dish that he liked and she answered that she did, like she was instructed.
What was going on in his head now, she wondered? Did he believe he’d hit the jackpot?
“I look forward to tasting your cooking. I am so fed up of cooking all on my own, just for myself!” He said. Someone came dashing from across the room, “What he means is, that is just one of the things he is looking forward to,” the woman gave him a meaningful look.
“Yes of course!”
“I look forward to cooking for you!” She said smiling sweetly. She felt she needed to cut him some slack. Must have been starving out there in the wilderness. At the thought of that she went back to how wonderful it would be there, amongst the flora and the fauna, one with nature, just her and God’s earth. She would have a million real subjects to write about, in between cooking and keeping house and being a good wife.
Before he left, he said, “I am really beginning to like you a lot. I am not just saying that. You didn’t even ask the routine questions my friends warned me about. Do you drink? Do you smoke? How many girlfriends…? Etc. etc.”
“I think all that was on your bio.” She said shyly. His height and weight and complexion and habits, “drinks socially”, ‘non-smoker’, “Fair complexioned,” “Height 5 ft 11”, “weight 168 kgs” , “Age 29 years”…
“What? Even my girlfriends?”
“No. This is not America!”
They laughed and everyone looked happy, especially her mother, who would be getting extra time with her. Two more days!
He liked her. That was normal wasn’t it? Weird would be declaring undying love about seven hours after you’d first met. She had warmed up to him too. He looked like his photograph and that was a great plus. Later, everyone added that the ceremony had been a success; that the groom was more than satisfactory. Some found it insulting that the groom’s elder brother hadn’t shown up. He had sent his blessings, though – a nice Bengal silk sari for Devi and a watch for his brother.
The honeymoon went by in a daze. It wasn’t that they were both averse to enjoying other people’s company. It was just that they’d found each other, pretty quickly when it came to it. They stayed inside their hotel room and made love all day and all night. Finally, the praises flew out of his mouth, “You are amazing”, “Why didn’t I do this sooner”, and more things that she felt were all decently appropriate. Her fears allayed, even further, her world was bliss. She hoped this would last forever. Her friends had coached her about what to expect, the married ones.
“If the praises come too soon and are too opulent, be sure that something is wrong. He is just mouthing.”
She was sure that Dheer wasn’t just mouthing.
“If he holds back a lot on the other hand, try loosening him up a bit. If that doesn’t work, something is wrong.”
“Could be anything from a lost love he is pining for to him being gay.”
She was sure that Dheer wasn’t gay.
“If he keeps calling his mother! Oh God! I hope that does not happen to you sweetie!”
Why? What is that? Is that bad?
“The worst! Have faith in God!”
That scared her shitless.
He called his mother once as soon as they arrived. Then he didn’t pick up the phone at all.
She thanked God a million times.
“And no strange kind of sex like from the behind and all that! Not this soon. Then something is wrong!”
She had a lot to be thankful for indeed.
“And you don’t keep chatting with your mother either!”
She wanted to but…
When she did finally speak to her mother, it was time to leave. She just asked if her daughter was happy. She assured her she was ecstatic and heard her mother sigh in relief. “See, lots of people get married! Nothing to be scared about! I told you!” Her mother joked. She was the one who’d been walking on hot coals all along!!
Time at her in-laws was nothing worth noting. Her new dad could only talk about his son in Calcutta, his family and children and how much he missed them. Her new mom rarely spoke about them and wanted to know everything about her honeymoon. Devi was sure she was eager to get all the details about their sex life as well, odd as that seemed.
“Is he keeping you happy?”
“Does he know everything?”
“Are you satisfied? Your father-in-law…” Ahh! I don’t want to hear that! She had to make excuses on the fly for when it got really uncomfortable.
What should she do? Could she tell her husband when he called with instructions for her travel to tell his mom to stop being that embarrassingly intrusive? Was that okay? No one had any advice for how to deal with one very dirty mother-in-law who walked around wearing the innocent face of conservatism.
When they took her to the train station she cried loudly. Devi couldn’t even shed a tear. She just hugged her and asked them both to visit soon. “I will visit with my son from Calcutta,” her new dad said. At that she found a few tears at last.
All was well.
At the site, a whole bunch of people arrived to receive her. Workers. Laborers. They all treated her like a queen. The addressed her as the ‘New Bride’ and practically lifted her off her feet and put her on a bullock cart. They mostly spoke Malayalam, not the Tamil she was used to, but she understood a lot. Her husband was beaming from ear to ear. The construction workers exhibited a unique kind of sensibility by allowing him to lift the biggest suitcase. They scurried away with the others. She was charmed.
On her first night there, he cooked for her. “What a treat!” She said looking at the plain rice and lentils and fried poppadum. It was very different from how her mother cooked it but not bad at all. Then they went straight to bed. She dozed off the minute her head hit the pillow, exhausted from all the traveling, oblivious to his pouting by her side. “Okay, I’ll just wake you up really early,” she heard him say. And she managed a “hmm”. He kept his promise and she gladly delivered.
The house was bigger than she’d expected. A huge kitchen, a couple of verandas that stretched all the way across one section of the house and lot of bedrooms, more than they could use. “This is the only fully constructed dwelling here. Must have been built by the British, years ago. Some sort of a lookout,” he said. The port of Cochin wasn’t far away. “No other educated soul here for several kilometers!”
“No? No school? No library?” Devi asked, wondering how she was going to fill her time.
“There is an elementary school for the children. All these laborers are young. Will have to travel quite a bit for a hospital or a library. You might get bored, yes.”
“Might?” She grew apprehensive.
“They have a movie theater here. Same movie runs for a month though, all day.”
“Something is better than nothing.”
“Nothing it is”
“Let me see…”
“Don’t worry I’ll find something to do.”
She made a list of several potential activities she could engage in. She could cultivate her own vegetable garden. Sew, knit, crochet, teach the children signing, music or cycling or some other sport, cook, do her own cleaning but that was frowned upon, write, write, write!
She took out her latest poem that her mother had edited. She read it slowly, savoring each word like it was a prized delicacy. She enunciated and added the right tones.
“What do you have there?” He asked brightly.
“You like reading poems?”
“It is in my blood. My mother is a poet, you know. What about you, is building things in your blood?”
“Yes, I suppose. The Periyars have always built things. Trenches during wars and later fences to divide up our property. The house you saw, my parents’? Just a fraction of the original property.”
She smiled at his joke. “What war?”
“My great uncle was a mercenary during the Spanish war.”
“Did he come back alive?”
“Yes he did.”
She served him dinner, a well cooked three course meal that he enjoyed. “You do know how to fry mackerel.” He observed.
She did remember to get her mother’s recipe before she left.
They sat in the verandah, enjoying the late evening breeze. A mosquito coil burnt constantly in a corner to keep them disease free. “Remind me to get my binoculars from work tomorrow. I want to show you the sea. If you look real hard, you can catch a glimpse of it, especially in the early hours before any industrial clouds set in.”
“Cochin? Yes! How exciting.”
“So when can I read your poem?”
“Well not right now. I don’t think we are there yet.”
“Where is that?”
“Where? Right now, I don’t know even what your favorite color is!”
“My you are a poet aren’t you? Blue. My favorite color is blue. But I get your point. We’ll get there soon.”
The days passed into weeks and then months. There wasn’t a day when he forgot to bring her flowers for her altar or her favorite snacks from the street vendor. There wasn’t a day when they didn’t make love at least once. They spoke about children, but neither wanted one right away. Eventually, she got to a point where she felt comfortable writing about him, her new husband. He was still new. She kept discovering new things about him, like a mole in a private place that she finally got the guts to take a peek at, the private place not the mole, or the fact that he was sure that the tomato was a fruit. She wrote about that but was sure she couldn’t share that with anyone. It was just for her, and maybe some day for him too.
“We are going into town tomorrow,” he announced one day.
“I want to include your name in my bank account. Get you an ID, address proof.”
“Joint bank account?” She was aghast. That was unheard of. Her mother never had a joint account and even signed her royalty checks over to her dad.
“You look shocked, is something the matter?”
No one had told her if this should be so. What was this? A test? “Is that necessary? You give me everything I need,” she said, feeling like she should.
“You are such a goody two shoes. Come here.” They were on the verandah and it was still bright outside. “Let’s dirty you up a bit!”
She shrieked realizing his intentions and ran inside, his laughter following her. “Be ready to leave by ten tomorrow. The driver will be here to pick you up.”
That day he took a day off. They got back just before sunset. She went right into the kitchen to make some tea. That is when it happened.
The poem her mother had helped her with was lying on the writing table. He picked it up casually and read. At first he didn’t understand the poem. It was in pure Tamil. He readjusted his focus and caught the gist of it.
When she came out with a tray, he was standing there looking at her with an expression she couldn’t decipher. What was that? Anger? Shock?
“What is it?” She asked innocently.
He opened his mouth but it looked like he might have a stroke. Finally he spluttered, “What is this?”
Then she saw the thing in his hands. The sheet of paper. The poem. “My poem” she said, “the one I wrote. Mother says it might get published, isn’t that great?
“So then the whole world will know that you are the farthest thing away from anything innocent!”
Shock reverberated through her body. This was anger. An emotion she hadn’t seen in him yet. She had actually forgotten all about that emotion. Her thoughts flew to the other poem she’d written. Thankfully, she remembered, it was tucked away in a notebook inside the desk’s drawer. Now it was incomplete again. How can an ode to a person be complete without addressing every facet of the personality?
“What are you staring at? Tell me what this means?”
Was that a serious question? “It’s about a harassed woman,” she began.
“It is about a prostitute. It is shameful! How do you know so much about such a woman?”
She froze. There was no answer to that question. Okay, there was but it would never satisfy him.
“Are you angry because you think a woman like me shouldn’t know about such things?”
“It is like you learned to walk then draped a sari and quite diligently produced porn.”
Laughter bubbled up. If mother could hear what he was saying. She had been advised. This was manageable. “Literature transcends porn. There is no comparison.”
He took a heavy breath in. “Excuse me. I am sorry. I got carried away.” Sarcasm was also a new color in him. Everything was happening so quickly. “Thank you for reminding me what literature is. The language is beautiful…”
“Then the subject isn’t what you should focus on. Not beyond a point. You know the naked courtesans who are carved in stone all over our temples? The ones that people overlook as the crowd around the fully clothed deity? Well if they vanish tomorrow people will notice! The prostitute in my poem is just like that. She draws focus to something important while staying relevant.”
His expression changed to one of respect. “You know how to defend your art. I am impressed. Could you please tell me more about how you came to know so much about that topic though?”
It was her triumph but she wasn’t going to let him off that easily. “What if I say I cannot reveal my source?”
“Well then you will not be absolved of all the charges brought upon you by my court,” He walked away.
She was the one who was angry now. “Trust me or don’t love me!” She yelled after him.
He didn’t flinch. Then she sat down and cried.
What a nasty fight. Their first one. How long would it last? She wiped her tears angrily and drank all the tea, even his. Then she finished everything on the tray and went to bed early.
When she woke up the next day she realized it was the first time they hadn’t made love in months. He was still asleep, right next to her. It was the weekend. This was going to be awkward. She wished she could call her mother. She really needed to speak to her. The only phone was at the site and was very unreliable. Moreover they weren’t allowed to use it to make personal calls. They usually left messages with people who relayed them back to family. She would have to tell him to do that though and right now that looked impossible.
She felt witless.
He got up and made his own coffee. Then he left without saying a word. Where was he going? No breakfast? He returned late in the evening with a worker, a middle-aged widow of a laborer by the looks of it.
“This is Maya. She’ll cook from now onwards and also do the housework. Work with her to help her around the house until she gets familiarized,” he said and sat down to read the three day old newspaper that arrived fresh today.
What was that supposed to be? A punishment? Was she getting demoted?
“Maya? Make us some dinner.” Devi instructed
“A complete South Indian meal. Standard fare.”
Maya nodded and headed towards the kitchen. Dheer did not respond or contribute to the discussion. He was engrossed in his newspaper.
Later he led Maya to one of their extra, empty bedrooms and got her settled there. She had a mat and a pillow that she’d brought with her, along with some clothes and toiletries. She set her bundle down and bowed low to thank him. Devi stood close behind, watching.
“Maya will you be okay by yourself here?” She enquired
Maya nodded timidly, then locked her door shut.
They both headed towards their bedroom. “Are you going to tell me what this is about?”
“I had been asking around ever since you arrived. I just found a suitable live-in. Sorry the timing is all wrong. Are you ready to talk yet?”
“I have nothing to say. I have done nothing wrong.”
“Okay then. I hope you have nightmares.” He turned off the light and hit the pillow.
In the dark she giggled. “You are being such a baby!”
“No! That won’t work. I will accept nothing but the whole story!”
This went on for a while until Maya noticed. She was a very friendly woman. Her family had been washed away in the flood and there was no one or nothing left. She was also had a severe stammer. She mostly just nodded or used hand gestures. So that day when she just couldn’t hold it in, her curiosity, she pointed at his laundry and then she pointed at her and said, “What?”
Devi understood but pretended she didn’t. Maya let it go. Then a few days later, Maya asked again. She picked up his shirt this time and hit her with the sleeves. Then asked with a kind enquiring face, “yes?”
“No Maya, he is not beating me.”
“Ah!” She brightened up and then yelled out gibberish, then said, “yes?”
“We are fighting yes.”
Maya sat down and let out a howl. Devi had been afraid of that. This was common. Maids often would get attached and then cry loudly during family tragedies. Soon it became expected of them. Now they just cried when they believed it was expected of them, dutifully.
“Stop it, no one has died!”
At that she rolled all around the floor and touched the feet of God in a framed poster. “No! Never! Once is enough!” That was the longest sentence she uttered. She was of course referring to her own family. “They all perished like vegetables.” Was another phrase she had uttered not long ago.
“Stop it. I don’t like that!” Devi cautioned, sure that this was drama.
“Tell me!” She gestured her commitment by touching her heart and locking her fingers together.
So Devi sat down and told her the whole story, leaving nothing out. She started right from the beginning, which was the field trip she took. She was, in fact, an actively involved social worker. She helped reestablish an entire village in Karnataka once, somewhere along the Western Ghats. There she met Pavitra, which means “The pure one”. Her story was so unique she just had to write about her. Inspiration flowed.
Maya was truly moved by her account. Now, her real emotions flowed through, as she wiped silent tears. Devi hugged her and said, “Thank you.”
Maya asked why.
“For forcing me to tell you. I feel lighter.”
Maya then asked what she was going to do. Did she have a plan? Or was she just going to allow him a free rein?
Free rein? If Maya could talk normally, she might have listed exactly what she thought this could all lead. Devi herself had mulled this over many times over the past few weeks. She was thankful for the fact that this hadn’t happened with family around. They might have sent her packing and made sure people heard why. ‘She knows too much. This isn’t a good girl.” Absurd as it was, that accusation would have found implicit support. A hush-hush of whispered gossip, a barely discernible eye-to-eye communication wherever she went, an ostracism; it would have all happened really quickly. As it stood between them, there was this cold war like situation being endured on a footing of trust. That trust built up from still being young in the marriage that brought them together in a good way. From liking everything they already knew about each other. This was the first major roadblock to taking that further.
“I am so disappointed. I expected a lot more from the man I married. I am not sure this will correct itself but even if it does, it will be there, the ugly truth. It will look at both if us and force us to look back at it. We have to live with the knowledge that both of us find the other’s certain personality trait impossible to live by. But what are we to do? We are stuck here forever.”
“Stop it! No one..,” Maya stammered, trying to imitate her from before.
“Understood!” Devi laughed. “Do you have a plan?”
Maya pointed at her eyes, gesturing ‘watch me’.
Devi looked at her incredulous. “You actually have a plan?!”
That is when she learnt Maya could write.
“Maya you know how to write!” She exclaimed.
“Two languages,” she wrote, “Tamil and Malayalam.”
“I am impressed.”
“Now listen,” she wrote in Tamil for her benefit, “This is what I think is going on in your husband’s head…”
Later that evening, Maya retired early. When Dheer found Devi doing the dishes on her own he asked if he could help.
“As you wish,” she said.
After the last dishes were done, he went out to the veranda. Maya had already set down a plate of fruit for him. Today, next to it was a twenty-rupee note.
Dheer picked it up and looked at it. “What is this?” He asked looking at Devi standing at the farthest corner.
“Coolie. For the dishes.”
Devi shrugged, “Is it too much?”
“Is something on your mind?”
“No. Just going to cut it out if Maya’s salary for playing hooky. Thought you should have it, since you helped.”
He looked at her like she’d gone nuts. “I will be pocketing this.”
Then he went back to his newspaper.
A few days later, this happened again. Once again, Dheer pocketed the twenty rupees.
The next evening Maya commented that she might be willing to share part of the twenty bucks for help with the dishes.
“Don’t like doing the dishes, Maya?”
So Dheer chipped in again. “Don’t expect me to do this everyday!” He said jokingly. That day he earned five bucks.
One day, he found the money on the verandah even before dinner. What’s more there was four times the usual amount. At first he frowned then he turned around to find two pairs of eyes on him.
“What…’ Then he reacted like he just realized something. He narrowed his eyes and glared at both of them. Maya turned around and left. Devi stood there, waiting for him to say something. “Who told you?” Was all he asked.
“I don’t know what you mean?”
“I know you do.”
She walked into their bedroom. He followed. “Devi, stop tormenting me. What do you want?”
“What do I want? I am your wife. What could I possibly want in this situation?”
“Do you want to start or should I? You know I have as many questions as you!”
“Okay. But you will not like it.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Do you know something already?!”
“How will I guess what, unless you tell me?”
He walked around, his hands clasped behind his back. “Why have you been leaving me money on side-tables?”
“I already told you…”
“Stop that! If that is all, why are we having this conversation?”
“Because you reacted to it in an unusual way. Something it reminds you of perhaps? Don’t keep it bottled up.”
He narrowed his eyes again and stared at her for a long time. She met his gaze, unflinching.
“Okay you asked for it, so here it is.”
He told her about it then. Everything. It began when he was in college getting an engineering degree.
The place wasn’t unlike this one. Far from civilization, a private engineering college was the only thing sustaining that town in a hill station in the south Indian state of Karnataka. The town had various businesses that catered to that institution. Rental units, restaurants and eateries, faculty housing, services for residents like laundry, etc. etc. Although there was a hostel attached to the university, some students preferred renting so they could keep their own schedules at least when not attending classes. Dheer had his own little unit in an apartment. A studio with a tiny kitchen and a spacious bedroom and study. Soon, he found a maid to keep it clean. Some days she would even cook for him.
In the third year, after a year of this arrangement, some guys started ragging him about having his own ‘woman’. He didn’t know what they meant until someone told him that many other guys were sleeping with their maids, that they sometimes doubled as prostitutes. He didn’t believe them, told them proudly that he was a virgin. That only made it worse. They teased him mercilessly. His closest friend there began feeling sorry for him. “I want to say, what an idiot, but I like you.” He said.
Anurag Dhilon had many girlfriends.
“You too? I thought you had friends for that purpose!”
“But they don’t go all the way!”
Dheer asked why that was necessary ‘at this age’, and Anurag laughed his heart out. “Just try it once!”
Dheer replied that people try new dishes, not women.
“Look! Don’t be afraid. Let me give you a tip. Just put some extra money on your bedside table. Maybe on salary day the first time. If she is a pro, she’ll know what to do.”
Dheer couldn’t believe his ears. “ And if she is not?”
“She might quit but we’ll get you another one!”
“You are going to get me killed for sure.”
Anurag laughed again. “Trust me. I like you, really.”
It was true that Anurag liked hanging around with him. Dheer was the only one in their circle who studied seriously and that helped him.
“Man how can you be this clueless!” Anurag laughed all the way home.
Dheer was having his own nasty thoughts. Should he stop interacting with Anurag altogether? Should he switch colleges? He could start afresh elsewhere, where he could pretend he wasn’t a virgin. How would anyone know?
As salary day approached, he grew nervous. A part of him wanted to run but another part of him wanted to try it out, do as Anurag had suggested. If the maid got mad, he could always claim it was a misunderstanding.
His studio was so small that the bed had a clear view of the kitchen. The only place he could hide if he needed to, was the restroom. He planned his moves in advance, meticulously. The number of steps it would take from the bed to the toilet, from the bed to the front door. The kind of objects he had lying around that could be used as weapons. He put away all the knives. Then he cleared his room of all clutter so the money on the bedside table would be visible. He would stand casually by the dining table, opposite the kitchen, which was on the other side of the front door, he decided. Finally, she walked in.
She found her salary on the kitchen counter as usual. She smiled and stuffed it in her blouse. Then she did her chores, barely noticing him. He wasn’t usually home when she came around because he preferred to stay away. She didn’t comment or ask why he was there today.
When she finally headed towards the bed, he held his breath. She saw it immediately. She stood there for a while like she was stunned. He was getting ready to bolt. Then she turned around and looked at him. She didn’t have to ask. The expression on his face spoke volumes. She stared expressionless. Then she walked up to the table and pocketed half the money. Dheer just stood there open-mouthed. A woman had just agreed to sleep with him for a hundred bucks. He felt like he was in heaven already. He had never thought of himself as exceptionally handsome. Girls smiled at him and were mostly polite but he never imagined that they ever fantasized about him or wondered if he would ever ask them out. No one wrote him love letters, like the ones Anurag received.
When he came back down to earth he realized that his maid, Pavithra, was now in his bed, under the covers. She was just lying there looking at the ceiling fan, like it was most interesting thing on earth. He wanted to approach her but he suddenly felt his legs turn to lead.
He looked at the toilet door. He would have to walk past her to get there. He would have to say something to her now if he wanted to leave, right? The minutes ticked away as he stood rooted to his spot. She seemed not to notice or mind. She just lay still, waiting.
It took him another fifteen minutes to just get the hell out if there.
He returned late from the library and thankfully, she was gone. He wondered if she would return. Then he got his answer. On the bedside table was fifty bucks. She had kept half the money for her trouble. He guessed that meant the option was still available?
But only if she found him in the house.
He began avoiding the apartment when he knew she’d be inside. She did her housework as usual. She still cooked on Thursday’s and Sunday’s.
When Anurag asked him about it, he wanted to lie and say he’d done it but he couldn’t. The first thing Anurag said was, “Lucky you! I lost three maids before I finally got one that agreed.”
“Now you tell me!” Dheer said, angrily.
“Now what are we going to do about that cold feet problem?”
“Nothing. She can keep the fifty bucks.”
“You are going to go and finish this today!’ He ordered like it was a shipment of consumables he was talking about.
Dheer felt silly and manipulated but he went for it. The minute she saw him, she finished what she was working on and went back to lie down under the covers. Once again, he stood there and lingered then dashed out. This happened a few times. She would never express any kind of judgmental emotion. She would just try to get the job done. He was the one failed to do his part.
Finally, Anurag told him to cut the shit out and get in bed ahead if her. She’ll make sure you won’t run, especially if she wants more money. It had been a month now, and another salary day approached.
That day, he did as Anurag had instructed. She saw him under the covers and understood. She got in. The rest was, in the end, easy.
Anurag was thrilled. “So?”
“Yes! Success! I am only sorry I can’t afford her everyday.”
But he did avail of her services often. Whenever he could. He was happy and smiling all the time like he had a secret.
It was after seven months of this, close to the end of the year that he announced that he was in love with her.
Anurag said simply, “It’s been ages since I had a good laugh.”
“Why is that funny?”
“Okay it is not. Marry her. But do find out if you will need to get in line when it’s time to fuck her.”
Dheer considered this, “How many clients do you thinks she has? She must be doing this for the money. Once she’s married to me, she won’t have to. She’ll be mine.”
“And where are you going to settle down? In tomorrow land?”
“I have given this some thought. There will be some opposition, yes. Parents, older brother, maybe even her family but we could wait it out on top of a hill. I could build us a nice cottage and she could continue to do housework. I will also have some money saved of course. I think once our first baby is born, it will all be okay.”
Anurag jumped like he’d had a hand grenade thrown at him. “What is wrong with you? Is there a single normal cell in your body?”
“This has happened before.”
“Once or twice. It made the news. You cannot hide anywhere!”
Dheer considered that. “Cannot hide? Well I will just need to be craftier that them.”
“Listen, it breaks my heart to tell you this but she does not love you. SHE does not love you.”
“How do you know?”
“What she’s made you feel, she’s made lots of other guys feel and around the same time. It may be special for you but not her.”
“That is wrong. I know we have a special connection.”
“You didn’t already tell her that did you?”
“No! Not yet.”
“Oh good! Thank God for that. Now tell me how many conversations have you had?”
Dheer thought about it. “Ah.. Zero.”
“So when you are fucking her, what is she saying to you, out loud?”
“She just lies there? That is what you are in love with?”
Dheer thought about it again. “Well you make it sound crass. It isn’t.”
“And she looks older than you. At least five years older. You don’t love her either.”
“You are wrong.”
“Okay, just hang around her schedule a day or two. Find out how many others she is doing. See how that makes you feel. You need to get out of your make believe world.”
Sure enough a few days later he returned disillusioned. “At least two other men.”
“What did I tell you?”
“I must act fast. I will tell her today.”
Anurag pretend to faint. “I tried,” he said, weakly.
When salary day came around, once again, he didn’t have the guts to tell her. Instead, he put four times the money on the bedside table. This should keep her off the others he thought. He would worry about next month’s rent later.
She looked at the pile of currency and looked aghast. “Sir, twice is okay. But four times in a row!? I am also a human being!”
He looked at her aghast, wanted to explain but he didn’t know where to begin. He let it go after his double treat. Later he decided he had to do something drastic. Things were getting out of hand.
Dheer looked at Devi now, “Are you mad?”
“No. No I am not mad,” she assured him.
“Now do you know why I reacted the way I did? First with that poem and then with that money on the side table? How did you know?”
“I only just realized that I did in fact know. What a coincidence. Pavithra’s story is in that poem. It must have freaked you out!” She went on to explain, “Maya had a hunch. She said you don’t seem that stuck-up. Something else is in play. Then when she got the whole story from me and read the poem, she suspected that perhaps another unique story was unfolding. She asked me to look at it anew from a different perspective. Then we decided we had to find out the truth.”
“I heard people have scary stories about how art reflects life but this was too much.”
“Do you want me to go on, or do you know the rest?”
“I do know but I’d love to hear your version.”
Dheer nodded and continued. “Long story short. She walked in the next day and saw me lying in bed with all the money I had lying on my chest. I had a sacred yellow thread placed right on top. I didn’t utter a word. The way I pictured it, she would walk in, take one look, and get it that I wanted to marry her. I was sure she’d come running in and hug me and thank me a million times. I was sure I’d be her hero, for life. Instead, she gasped in shock. Her hand flew to her mouth. The next thing she did was tell me she was never coming back. “Wait!” I yelled, “can’t you see I am serious?”
“Please sir, do not repeat that to anyone. They will hack me to death.”
I went after her. The village she lived in was up in arms. They blocked my path. They called me a crazed kidnapper. Anurag showed up with his own gang, “I knew this is where it would lead,” he said. What followed was mayhem.
In the end we returned in one piece and that was the end of it. I told Anurag that perhaps I wasn’t cut out for casual sex. For once he agreed, although he later added that I was a unique specimen of the male genus.
I got over her. Anurag was a great help. He’s the best buddy I ever had. Still is. He’s abroad now so we aren’t able to communicate as often.” Dheer’s voice trailed off. He looked at Devi, trying to gauge what her real emotions were. “Of course he was right. That wasn’t real love.”
Devi smiled, a bit sadly. “It didn’t end there for her.”
“Is she okay?”
“I met her when I went to this same place where you went to college. By then her village had been uprooted by some industrial development. I was part of an NGO that was working to reestablish the affected residents. She got some compensation from the government which she said she was going to use towards her dowry. I asked who the groom was. She hadn’t picked one yet. We got to talking and she just told me this story about her life as a maid and a sex worker before she became a sweeper at a corporation school. She quit being a maid after what happened with you. She said she was extremely distraught that she”d come this close to ruining a nice young man’s life. She couldn’t think about anything else for days. Her family wasn’t aware how she was earning her money and they didn’t care. When she stopped going, they sort of understood. When you went to get her, all they were doing was protecting their kind. They don’t trust us, you know.”
“Eventually, she found work as a sweeper, a better, semi-government, permanent job. She said that she never forgot the man who led her to that better life. She prayed you were okay. That you didn’t kill yourself or anything. She didn’t have any way of finding out and she always wondered.”
“I did ask her why she didn’t take that other step, why she didn’t say yes when she could have. She looked at me and said seriously, you will judge me poorly if I tell you exactly why. I assured her I wouldn’t. I had after all heard the worst. She told me this was, according to everything logical in the world, even worse. She didn’t want to marry you or even consider it, in fact. She had already made up her mind. No men who paid for sex were good enough for her. Call me a dreamer she said, but I’d rather stay unmarried forever than marry someone like that.”
“Oh, uh,” he cleared his throat, then he asked, “is it okay to laugh?”
She said, “I do see the irony, and sorry!”
“Such egotists we are,” he had a good laugh. “I was never going to be her hero.”
“No. No you weren’t.” She laughed too. “And now, Maya is mine!”
A while later he said, “Now I know why the title of your poem is ‘Innocence’’”
“Do you?” a few moments passed before he answered, “or maybe not. Was it me you were referring to?”
A year later they finally went to meet Pavithra. “Liberate her from her pent up thoughts, her guilt,” Devi insisted.
When she saw them, she did a double take. “How did you find him?” She asked Devi.
“I didn’t. He found me. I am his bride.” Devi said, wondering why she’d said that. She was now more than just a bride. She was his wife, his friend and his life partner. She had wished to be wed to someone uniquely progressive. She found it worked both ways.
“Oh!” Pavithra stood astounded for a second, then she broke into peals of laughter. “Oh your poor thing!”
“We came here for you!” Devi admonished.
“I’m truly touched! After all these years!” She said seriously, not apologizing for her candor. “Thank you. Now I can stop wondering.”
They left feeling unburdened, Devi’s burgeoning belly a reminder that her extended period as a bride was finally over.