Clockwise Around the Fire – Barnali Ray Shukla, Mumbai

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3344“No, this is not a love story but a story about love”.

These are not my lines. The other day I watched this film, between meetings, at our newly rented office in Swarthmore , Philadelphia.  That’s where I heard this. It had the very awesome Angelina Jolie and this strictly average chap.

Yes, guys find it tough to praise men.

At least am honest about it.

Niharika once said unlearning begins by making way for others’ opinions.  She had then extended her arm. Held a small tub of my favourite almond ice-cream. The part I liked more than the dessert was, that tiny silver-spoon in it, with her initials, NB.  Niharika  Barua . Ever since, I’ve been learning to unlearn.

The smart-phone purred for attention. I ignored it . Headed to the elevator. The purring persisted. Yes it was her.

I said my prayer.

Over the phone, she sounded like pashmina, nestled around a cold February. Before I could stretch my imagination a little, it faced reality. She was calling from the studio, so she couldn’t get any louder. She asked how I was placed the next evening.

I confessed I was free. Added a ‘maybe’, feigning a busy diary. By now, stares on my shoulder told me that I had overstayed my welcome, in the packed rush-hour elevator.

Niharika read my mind, chuckled,

“Ignore them”

My smile stretched till the lunch hour that day despite the daily diet of real-estate rates, mortgage, loans, clients, houses-for-sale.

Then Vinayak got me in touch with woes.

Father got me in touch with my temper.

Mother got me in touch with India.

Twitter got me in touch with the world, I wasn’t however,

in touch with myself.

One day, when Vinayak & I were with this Italian couple, checking out this charming villa in another neighbourhood of suburban Philly, I almost screamed “ just her kind-of-place”.

The lady looked amused, asked “your girl-friend?”

I responded late with an ambiguous shake of my head.

It was a nod that can’t tell between a yes and a no.

The gent & I shared a silent cigarette as his wife comforted herself with kitchen details. He asked me abruptly “so what is she like?”

“Niharika..she  is too young to be my girl and too bright to be my wife” .

I can’t believe that I actually said that, but words had left me.

I let the words hang in an stupor. Insolent and uncouth.

The couple had loved what they had seen but I knew they felt disgusted . They left . Next day a note had reached my email inbox saying .

“ If you want to see us again to further talks, send us a list of ten things you value.” Vinayak had fallen silent.

I knew I had made yet another mistake but I was in denial.

“Its just another sale, just ignore it ’.

Vinayak had texted me later that night . ‘Some people buy an address, some buy a pin code, most come to buy a house , but there are a few who think they can see a home’

I had deleted the wisdom from my phone but the truth remained in the air.

I wasn’t always this way.

An apparent cockiness hides a need.  A need,  hard to define.  Most often I can’t, so I shove it  to a corner of my innermost self . Only felt  when one rummages messy drawers of  memory.  At times like this, I head for Led Zep or Abida Parveen. At times I go jogging .

I came to be this way after that bike-accident . I say it all. I do it now. I sound like the Nike slogan. It was one accident  when a classmate died on my left shoulder. He was on the pillion, I was riding the bike. Slow. Yes slow because I kept hearing my father’s voice in my head , warning me , cursing me for wanting to feel the breeze in my hair. Wanting to move ahead. Wanting a little more out of life than he could ever dare.  And that father’s voice I heeded too much. I was driving slow on that super-highway.  The truck behind us didn’t let us go that way.

It rammed into us at a lazy bend .  I was bathed in my friend’s blood, pain and auto parts. A near-death experience is much more than scars and broken bones. It is a rebirth .

A rebirth that tells you never to overtake when you can give way. I had to silence the warnings in my head .  I would resort to rebellion to annoy dad . No.

I would annoy dad totally . I would quit following his dreams and start following mine.

Sleep got throttled yet again. Phone. This was Ma. Her third call that day.

Ma would divulge details of girls that her astrologer would share. Girls ready to marry her son.

This time she asked “..and who is Niharika?’

“ how do you know her?”

“ I don’t .. but each time we talk, you try and tell me”

“She is my.. my neighbour ”

Ma smothered my lie with a simile.

“Life choices are not like tempering daal. Mustard seeds or cumin seeds or both?”

I had first seen Niharika at a graveyard.

She was reading out a letter by a fresh grave. She didn’t miss a detail. A smile crept into her eyes as she read. That’s how she fought tears.

I blinked away this memory. I was meeting Niharika next week.

She still reads letters by that grave.

When Niharika and I went walking to the supermarket to buy a packet of crackers I told her about ma’s confusion over tempering lentils. Niharika shared how she made her choice.

“Tell ma , I walk up to the curry –leaf plant facing east, it nods a yes or a no”

“that’s  the breeze from the Atlantic”

“It can’t be too different for Bay of Bengal”

I felt what I hadn’t felt before.

My mother would like Harry. That’s what I call Niharika.

Ma’s reminders of marriageable-age haunt  me on cold evenings. Marriage for me has one translation.

Loss of  man-hours with one’s true calling ,  feeling –a- bit- sorry for oneself,  onslaught of mundane trapeze.

Once I had rehearsed in front Niharika’s hallway mirror “what do you think marriage is all about?”

Maybe she wasn’t prepared. Maybe she was shy.

She had ignored my query.

She looked engrossed in the Canon5D, MarkII, which she had found in top condition at a once-used sale at the B&H Store , NYC. She said her camera wanted to get ‘that’ look she had just seen in my eyes . I realized my thoughts had reached my eyes but not my lips. My inner voice got drowned in her mirth.

“It’s the light ..” she whispered as she transformed the camera from a machine to her faculty.

“It’s you Niharika who brings out this light”, this sentence remained in me . When we leave words unsaid, we change the course of our life.

I left her apartment at the next opportune moment. Scared that I may lose another friend on my left shoulder. Niharika was much more than a bundle of spunk in that five feet two inch frame. She contained ether, magma and grey matter.

And a heart in the right place.

Over the next thirteen phone calls, over nine days, my mother extracted a yes for me. I confirmed that I was going to marry one girl that Ma was keen on, as her daughter-in-law.

A week later I found myself in a semi-trance, in a flight to Kolkata.

Jet-lag saved me from dad’s spiel. We men now were in this hired non-ac taxi on a staple diet of Bollywood tyranny.

Finally home, Howrah , West Bengal , India .

Wedding .

Vinayak had one question for me

“you know what you are doing right?”

“of-course I do”

“ so why this random Pia ?”

“ why not Pia ?”

Vinayak had remained silent across the phone.

I remembered I had lit the 20th cigarette of the day. In less than ten days, I was back in Philadelphia with a lawfully wedded wife.

Wedding pronounced us man and wife but ‘marriage’, doubtful.  Mantras in a dead language. Rounds around a reluctant fire fed with ghee. Vermilion smattering . There was  a conspiracy somewhere . Uncomfortable truths find no place better than middle-class, middle –age and middle-path.

Pia  had said yes to me for life . She had seen my photograph, known my date of birth and her parents told her that I was right for her. There had to be more to it.

I had said yes to the marriage as I liked the shape of her feet, the quiet rage in her unusually kind eyes which gave a glimpse of an unheard protest and her lisp as she abruptly pronounced my name . I almost felt like tweeting this. Didn’t.

The anticipation of arranged marriage is oddly exciting.

If treated as poetry , the enigma might be engaging for life.

I  had overheard  somewhere that poetry was eroding .

I began to stop overhearing. Paid attention to the wife.  Pia’s questions  made me feel like she was updating my domestic website . I tweeted this . Damn. Deleted it the next minute.

I tried to enjoy bits of the married life.

The familiar home now bore Indian motifs, aromas and complications. I felt abruptly ready to take it to the next level. Pia didn’t dislike the proceedings of nuptial possibilities of the marital bed. But I felt untalented. The progress got stalled. She remained mute.

Her granny had said that women’s needs in bed, get misinterpreted as being coarse and cheap. Good girls don’t ask for it . Pia was working towards remaining that good girl.

With much of my selling skills I drove home the point that she was a free citizen and a wife enjoys her rights. She could get a bit innovative if she cared.  She expressed some little amorous idiosyncrasies, in her own rustic way.

“Charming” ,  I said aloud.

The truth was I wanted to go for a walk..with Niharika .

Pia was everything I wasn’t.  The only thing we had in common was the surname . I wish she hadn’t changed hers. I dislike this amalgam.  I wanted to escape  to Niharika.  I knew she could solve my Pia for me as well.

Then, one evening, Pia spoke.

She wanted to change. Change for me.

A reluctant volunteer but a volunteer nonetheless.

She had plundered the bar.

Dependence on chemicals to bed her, emasculated  me.

The compulsion of being a good wife felt evil .

Truth began losing, sleeping, going, gone.

When I woke up, there were signatures of the night that had succumbed to rituals . Consummation of the mind is what I sought. What I achieved was vitriol.

The morning-after had been embers.

Pia made that mug of masala chai. Tried humming .

My conscience understood a wife. My heart hated the woman.

My lips this time spoke ahead of my thought

“How can I ever live without Harry”

“ That’s the name”

“ What name?”

Pia parked the piping hot paranthas right across me.

She wore a smile in her eyes . The nascent kohl in place.

“ The name on your lips all night ..when we  ”

I stared at the emptiness ahead.  “What name?”

Pia looked at me, “ I can’t quite recall it exactly . I know you will tell me today.”

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