Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hanging Love


‘Shall I tell them to bring her down?’ sub-inspector Arjun asked Inspector Shokie.
‘Let her hang.’ But for the grimace on her face, Shokie’s response sounded contemptuous.
Arjun briefed his boss, ‘The maid who comes in the afternoon to clean found the door locked. She told Indira’s,’ he paused, pointed at the hanging lady, ‘her mother. They banged on the door; and, hearing the ruckus, some neighbors came over. Indira’s husband came home with their kid then. He is between jobs, and the four-year old is in playschool. Indira’s brother too turned up. Someone brought a sledgehammer to open the door. It was bolted from within, all the windows too.’
It wasn’t a big room, a study-cum-guest room. There was a small bed at one corner with a study-table next to it. A chair lay on the floor, in the middle, presumably kicked by the victim hanging from a hook. There was an attached bathroom.
‘You seem to be familiar with this lady,’ Shokie noted.
Arjun explained, ‘A month back, her husband filed a missing person report with us. It turned out that this Indira had run away with a lover, some married guy in her office. We didn’t have to do much. The families intervened and brought her back to her senses.’
‘How old is she?’ Shokie asked.
‘Twenty six…’
‘So, she married at twenty or so, had a kid a year later, and you think she lost her senses because she fell in love with another at twenty five or twenty six…?’
‘Come on, she has got a four-year old kid,’ Arjun said.
‘So…?’
Arjun glared at his boss. Shokie’s deep-set dark eyes held the glare for a while before turning her attention to the crime scene.
‘Did she do it?’ she asked.
‘Looks that way,’ Arjun said, with a hesitation.
‘But…?’
‘The height of the body seems fine but how did she get the rope through the hook in the ceiling? Bit of a stretch for her height, but not possible…’
‘Hmm…’
‘By the way, there is a suicide note.’
‘How convenient…’
Shokie followed Arjun to the table.
The first page in a writing pad had a short note, ‘I love him. I can’t live without him. I am leaving.’
Shokie flipped the page and studied the next page.
Arjun remarked, ‘Yes, there is an impression on that. And, it’s her handwriting alright.’
‘But, when did she write this?’ Shokie asked. ‘Don’t they teach in school to date all correspondence? Maybe not suicide notes? And…’ She paused.
‘And, notice of eloping?’ Arjun offered.
Shokie nodded. ‘No note like this came up at the time of the missing person complaint, I guess.’
‘No.’
 ‘Any sign of struggle here?’
‘No.’
‘Doping?’ She answered that herself. ‘I guess we will have to wait for the postmortem. I am sure that won’t tell us whether it was self-administered or not?’
‘If this is not suicide, how did the killer get out of a room locked from within?’ Arjun queried.
‘When the room was unlocked…’ Shokie suggested.
‘But when they smashed into the room, they did not see anyone in this room,’ Arjun noted.
‘Did they check the bathroom?’ Shokie asked.
‘Someone would have noticed when the killer exited.’
‘Not if that person is a member of the house,’ Shokie said.
‘Indira’s mother and husband were outside the room.’
‘How about the brother…?’
‘Surely a brother won’t kill a sister…’ Arjun exclaimed.
Shokie raised an eyebrow, chewed her lower lip and gave an exasperated look.
She said, ‘Check out his movements. Cross-check with everyone who was here, the maid, neighbors, all of them…’
‘You don’t sound too hopeful,’ Arjun observed.
‘I am quite sure he will say that he was outside… or, upstairs, in his room, somewhere. And the family would vouch for that, and every other nincompoop here would contradict each other hopelessly with their account of that confusion…’
‘We can try to break him and the others…’ Arjun suggested.
‘We will…’ Shokie looked up at the hanging body, ‘hasn’t she hanged enough? Take her down, will you? Bloody love! One way or the other, you end up hanging…’
Arjun raised an eyebrow and gave a noncommittal shrug.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Prize Goes To...


We were ambitious and lucky.
The first year, we caught a big fish cheap. I had convinced the committee that ‘it’s make or break’, that we should spend all that we had to rope in a judge who would give our award, and the literary society, legitimacy and respectability. Weren’t we surprised when the head honcho stated a price less than a quarter of what we had been willing to give? We had not realized that down-on-luck writers didn’t need a recession to feel the economic pinch. Our calculations turned out to be correct as far as submissions and the attraction of a celebrity’s name were concerned. Enthusiasts submitted and paid for more than one entry, as if it was a lottery, betting that their writing would seem better in bulk. They too were right in a way. The judge’s selection was as good as a lottery. He kept aside language, plot, characters and originality; and, let his critical eye focus on ‘ingenuity and style’. The prize-winning story ‘echoes Mishima and Hemingway’, the judge declared. It had a protagonist, with a propensity for soliloquy and daydreaming, who killed himself; and the ingenious style could have been the excessive use of capital letters. Mind you, Arundathi Roy came much later.
It was smooth sailing from then on, with no dearth of funds. The second year, thirteen women and three men were shortlisted, and we let a man win. That spurred the competitive spirit in women writers, and only one man made it to the shortlist the third year. A woman won, of course, and we were the first to coin the phrase, ‘Indian Woman Writer’. That had involved a lot of deliberation. The women members of the literary society were against such a classification, ‘writer is a writer, period’, they had argued. They were clearly surprised when the public, writers and readers, took to that new class of writers with great fervor. The fourth year, we opened the competition to all, Indian and foreign, and the prize went to a Chilean working in South Africa. Apartheid was still going strong then and the photo of the writer seemed to be that of a non-white. The fifth year, the creative writing schools lobbied hard and four out of five in the shortlist advertised skills obtained in such courses. They wrote well, sounded similar and inadvertently plagiarized the same material. The sixth year, the great Indian novelist was born. The writing was simple, precursor to Chetan Bhagat and such, and plot was even simpler. That year, the protagonist in the winning piece suffered from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, by day an Aamir Khan in Satyameva Jayate and by night the same actor in Ghajini, with the twist that the former persona turns out to be a killer. It was critically acclaimed and readers gave the feedback, ‘could identify with the character much before the end’. The next year, we returned to social causes and chose an Indian Woman Writer from Backward Society.
A few years back, we appeared liberal and the right-wing lot named us ‘left-wing fascists’. Hate mail, faeces and legal notices filled the letterbox. Two years later, the left accused us of selling our souls when we gave the prize to an endearing piece about lost culture, respect, love and god. Everyone at some time or the other has threatened to boycott us, but like dog turd on shoe-soles, we persist in form and in senses. It could be because of the handsome prize-money our deep coffers allow. We like to think that it is because we allow total freedom. We have never insisted on a theme or structure or even literary skills. Each year, the literary society channels all its efforts towards selecting the right category that resonates with or guides public sentiment, and the winning story follows.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Nutty Ways


Inspector Shokie was not surprised when she was informed of the untimely death at Dubai Mansion; but, she had expected Rajan, the house-owner, to be a suspect rather than the victim. The postmortem revealed that he had died of fatal food-related anaphylaxis (in this case, the victim’s allergy to peanuts) but that and a search of the premises yielded little else to bolster Shokie’s suspicions that peanuts, as nuts or oil or butter, had been surreptitiously introduced in the victim’s diet by a malicious hand. The police released the body to the family. Shokie followed the mourners and hung around the victim’s property while the cremation was being readied. The family and the villagers expressed their displeasure at her intrusion with thinly-veiled opprobrious remarks.
Shokie had earned the resentment of the villagers in two other deaths, or rather, murder cases: a son had drowned his infirm father in the river; and, a daughter and son-in-law had facilitated the hanging of an old woman. The rustic lot had viewed Shokie’s investigations and the incarceration of their peers as unnecessary meddling in their affairs, reeking of an outsider’s insensitivity towards their ways.
Rajan was a good man, Shokie heard the villagers opine unanimously. She had a thick file on the man and understood their sentiments. He had contributed well to the temple, offered free drinks to the needy and donated his old PC to the village school. At thirty, with new-found eligibility based on some job in Dubai, he had married a cousin and fathered four in as many visits in as many years. At forty four, his wife died of a violent peanut allergy and he inherited her substantial personal wealth. He returned from Dubai when he was fifty, then a respectable self-made nouveau riche. He married another cousin and doted on a step-daughter. The second wife died of the same hereditary cause. The step-daughter was a minor and Rajan managed the entire inheritance. The wives died before Shokie’s posting at the village. It was while going through the old files on those deaths that the niggling worry of a third death in Rajan’s residence had started to trouble her.
Shokie stood away from the crowd during the final rites. A few wailed, most managed to look glum, some seemed as if they carried the whole burden; one or two gave directions to half a dozen or so: how to bathe, how to carry the corpse, how to place the dead, how to pay one’s final respects and who should head the queue. The setting up of the funeral pyre in the compound had been outsourced to a private firm. The corpse was carried to the pyre, covered with firewood and coconut husk. A son and a nephew marched around the pyre. The call came then.
From within the pyre, a mobile phone’s ringtone took the crowd by surprise. The ringtone was quite apt, the theme music of the movie ‘One Missed Call’. The crowd gave a mixed reception: some clucked their disapproval; some shook their head in tune or with reluctant smiles. Shokie stepped forward, ordered the pyre to be dismantled and the corpse to be disturbed. The search yielded a smart-phone from within the folds of the shroud.
The incoming call had been from a telemarketing company. What Shokie discovered in a folder of photos confirmed her earlier suspicions.
Shokie asked, ‘Where is the step-daughter?’
The girls and ladies who had stayed away from the pyre as per custom had drifted towards the site by then, beckoned by the call from the nether world. A girl of sixteen stepped forward. She looked nervous but not unduly distressed.
‘Is this your step-father’s phone?’ Shokie asked the girl.
‘Yes.’
‘Did you put this within the shroud?’
‘Yes,’ the girl admitted.
‘Why?’
‘It used to be with him all the time,’ the step-daughter replied.
Shokie nodded. She switched off the smart-phone, handed it over to the men in charge of the pyre. She stood near the pyre while the phone, with the photos of the step-daughter in various states of undress quite clearly taken without her consent, and its owner were consumed by the cleansing fire.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Time To Go


I expected the worst when I received Hosappan at the airport. But, I got a hug, a tired smile and a whisper, ‘Take me home.’
He slept for most of that hour’s drive, and when awake he stared out, at the fading green, the early light and the plastic bags with garbage that lined the highway.
I had arranged the trip (‘go and see your old haunt’), he had refused (‘this will go to pieces’) and I had offered to take care of ‘this’ (his house and farm).
When we got there, I expected him to criticize my house-keeping.
But, he said, ‘Nice, thank you.’
He settled in his arm-chair, lit one of his customized beedis and took a long drag.
‘Is that the first one in two weeks?’ I asked.
He turned to me, light of his old self flickering in his eyes, ‘You bastard, you didn’t tell me that people have gone totally crazy. I lit one and a mother started screaming as if I had raped her child.’
‘Did you meet her?’ I asked.
‘As for the food, food indeed…! God, I give better stuff to my cows. Kids munch bowls of green leaves! I asked for beef and the waitress, who seemed decent till then, refused to take my order till I changed it to fish. It’s so depressing everywhere… even the supermarkets… healthy food, GM-free food, organic food… the labels are enough to put you off food!’
‘Did you at least call her?’
‘There was this shop giving free cakes. I asked for a brownie, they were offended…’
‘You must have asked for more than that…’
‘Well, I said, a brownie for a brownie, please! Why should they get offended by that?’
‘Hosappa, you just can’t…’
‘Yeah, yeah… politically correct crap!’
‘Did you call her, Hosappa?’ I persisted.
‘I did. She is alone, a widow, kids elsewhere. Hey, do you know that everyone goes around everywhere with a slate and pencil… reminded me of the days when she and I used to go to school, carrying our precious slate and pencil.’
I guessed that he was referring to tablets and smart-phones.
‘They talk to themselves too. We used to do a lot of that, as kids.’
‘You still do,’ I said. ‘Why didn’t you meet her?’
‘I love her. I can’t take another goodbye.’
‘You two could be together…’
He shook his head.
‘My world is shrinking. It’s time to go…’

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Seconds


‘If this doesn’t work out, I would like the parting of ways to be…’ I paused.
‘Amicable?’ she suggested.
‘That’s asking for too much,’ I tried to make it sound like a joke. She did not smile.
I continued, ‘Well, let’s try to cut out all the bullshit, the headache, the grief, the delay and all that.’
‘Ok,’ she said.
‘Ok?’ I wanted to make sure.
She nodded.
I had thought a lot about that condition, the single-point ‘T&C’. I was sure about my priorities; even though it seemed an ominous start to the contract, by discussing how to end it.
‘I too have a request,’ she said, emphasizing the ‘too’ to make it clear that my condition had been taken as a request.
‘Yes?’
‘Let’s leave the past alone,’ she said.
I stared at her for a long while. I had expected that to be one of the plus points of the affair, to have someone to share the past, and the future; to understand, to rectify, or maybe that’s asking for the moon; a talking pillow perfect for therapeutic catharsis of the self.
‘Both sides…?’ I checked.
She raised an eyebrow. It is tough to negotiate with that.
I shrugged, to be noncommittal. She took my silence as an ‘aye’.
A month later, without much ado, we got married.
The first time, I had done it differently. Others had taken care of the selection, leaving only the final interview for me. The criterion applied then, inferred with hindsight, was: ‘a girl like my sisters’. The wise had warned that by lowering ‘standards/demands’, we appeared desperate, too eager to please, ready to be abused. It seemed like a good idea then; and it sounds great even now, in theory. Altruism is wonderful, outside relationships and business deals.
This time, I had worked alone. I browsed through matrimonial sites, with filters on sex (‘female’), status (‘divorced’), profession (‘employed’) and age (around mine, plus 3 years to minus 6 years; I am partial to multiples of 3). I concentrated on the photos. I found hers in the second month, an unsmiling face with blank tired eyes, a face which used to smile, and eyes that still captivate. I sent my photo and profile to her. It took her three weeks to respond that she is interested. We met at a neutral venue, talked for a few minutes, agreed on those two points and got married.
Two snags developed between the first meeting and the wedding.
The first was a minor issue. As soon as I announced my choice, well-wishers decided to do their bit for me even though I had explicitly instructed them not to interfere. They donned their private-eye costume, made enquiries about her, gathered gossip from various external sources, collated the information and presented the succinct feedback: ‘she is a wrong one’. Probably true, I had thought; but, to be spiteful, I told my set of near and dear that she must be then the right one for me. After the wedding, I confided to her about their findings (I assumed that discussion of ‘the past’ pertaining to events of mutual interest, after our first meeting, was allowed). She informed me that her folks had come to a similar conclusion through similar means: ‘he is not just a wrong one, but a nasty one’. She admitted that she had thought of pulling out. Ironically, my ‘T&C’ about how to withdraw rescued our affair. Even if it turned nasty, the exit seemed fine, so why not go ahead, she had thought. Rather flippant we were.
The other problem was a serious one. A week after our meeting, I lost my job at the ‘stable century-old’ company when it had to pay for its sins and filed for bankruptcy. I called her that day. I would have preferred a face-to-face meeting, mano a mano and all that, but my precarious jobless state did not permit me to leave town and fly to her place.
‘I have lost my job,’ I announced.
She remained silent.
‘Hello, are you there?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘Why aren’t you saying anything?’ I asked.
‘What can I say when it sounds as if you want to say something else,’ she said.
‘Say what something else?’ I asked.
‘That you want out,’ she said.
‘I did not say that,’ I protested loudly.
‘Isn’t that what you meant?’ she asked aggressively.
If we had been face-to-face, I would have tried to raise an eyebrow at that point.
I have to admit that she had managed to read my wavering mind. With only three weeks left of my second bachelorhood, I had grievous doubts about the suitability of the alliance and I was rather willing to take my job loss as an omen or balm or whatever to sooth frayed nerves or jitters or whatever.
‘No, I was only telling you that I lost my job,’ I said, sounding hurt and misunderstood.
‘And you want me to say that I want out,’ she persisted, mercilessly.
‘No,’ I said emphatically. God! She could be difficult.
I clarified, ‘Ok, I did expect you to say that.’
‘Ah…’
‘But, I do not want you to say that.’ What made me say that?
She remained silent.
I wanted to shake her shoulders till her dentures rattled and grey matter conformed correctly to pressure.
I asked with a calm voice, ‘Why aren’t you saying anything?’
‘I have nothing to say.’
‘Are you saying that it doesn’t matter to you that I am jobless?’ I asked, quite incredulous.
‘Do you expect me to quit the scene if you lose your job after we get married?’ she asked.
‘That’s different. Before marriage…’ I did not complete. I think I got her point then.
After all, we were not following the rules of the game.
I did not realize then that she was not bothered about my job or professional status or my income. Sounds unreal… that’s why I did not realize that for a long time.
Luck, good and bad, has its own funny ways. Two days after that call came another omen. I got a job offer from a firm that was keen to capture a few of us nouveau poor and jobless while we were uncertain and cheap. I called her again to tell the good news, and once again listened to the silence of her incongruous sang-froid. I wondered if she was going to be an emotionless Spock to my effervescent Captain Kirk. Such are the ways of second-hand marriages, I grumbled to myself.
The wedding was a quick affair. There were half a dozen in-laws on both sides to witness the coming together of outlaws. I got a cousin working at the Secretariat to facilitate a speedy registration of the marriage at the Corporation office. We caught the late evening flight. The two sets of perpetually miffed in-laws dropped us off at the airport. There were no tears or teasing, just hasty farewells and resigned best wishes. While waiting at the lounge, I wondered if I should try to convince her that we should add the ‘avoid in-laws’ clause to our charter for marital bliss. I made a mental note of that, not wanting to get into tricky quagmire before leaving enemy territory. While I was pondering over that hefty issue, she talked to me about her job prospects. She had quit her job and seemed confident of getting another in the big city where I worked. I copied her nonchalance with regard to my professional status and refused to give any opinion, not divulging the fact that I had none to offer because I was clueless about her line of work. Men of few words do seem intelligent and get more respect, don’t they? As a result of that, we talked little during our first journey together.
‘Should I carry the bride over the threshold?’ I asked, outside our apartment.
‘Let’s not risk a slip disc or cardiac arrest,’ she said with a polite smile.
So, she had checked me out physically, I noted. Younger me would have tried a rejoinder about the kilos she had to lose and such. Yes, I had checked her out. Filled out, I would say. In a good mood, it would come with the prefix ‘well’; and at other times, with the suffix ‘too well’.
She checked out my/our small ‘erstwhile bachelor’ pad and remarked sweetly, ‘Nice.’
Like every nice new recruit, she displayed enthusiasm, checked out the fridge and volunteered to rustle up a quick meal.
I decided to be nice and said, ‘How about getting a pizza?’ She agreed too readily.
I gave her the menu with the economical suggestion, ‘How about the large basic one with chicken and onion?’
‘I am a vegetarian,’ she stated.
Niceness ended then and there.
‘You are what?’ My heart pumped vigorously. ‘Why didn’t you say so before we got married?’ I asked.
‘You didn’t ask,’ she replied.
‘Is that so?’ I allowed a dramatic pause for tension to build up; and, for other skeletons to step out of the closet. ‘Who has heard of vegetarians in our place?’
‘I cook non-veg. but I don’t eat.’ 
Younger less-wiser me would have retorted, ‘Don’t bother. I will cook my own non-veg.’
Instead, I asked, ‘Is this some religious crap?’
She raised an eyebrow and the conflict ended.
The new morn and the days that followed brought the grim reality of living together in cramped spaces. Out went privacy and solitude, in came civil co-existence. We seemed and behaved like an odd middle-aged couple. She liked non-fiction, I loved pulp fiction; she liked politics, I hated that; she watched crappy Indian film and crime-shows, I preferred crappy Hollywood movies and slapstick comedy; she cooked well, I loved to cook but did so disastrously; I ate her cooking with a sulk because I had to enjoy the non-veg. alone, she tried to smile when she had to mouth mine.
A month after the wedding, and two weeks before her joining date at a new job, we went on a short honeymoon, a three-night stay at a nearby hill-station. The first night, we had wine, danced and tried to revive some old forgotten youthful exuberance but failed clumsily.
The morning after, she got up early for a morning walk.
‘Do you want me to come?’ I asked from beneath the covers, still sleepy.
‘No,’ she sounded too sure, ‘I want to do some bird-watching.’
I sat up in bed, the cold finger of dread tracing a line from the hypothalamus to the gluteus maximus, and feebly queried, ‘Are you into that?’
I guess my expression said more than that. She slipped out of the room without a word.
In college, even when febrile testosterones had decided an egalitarian attitude towards the fairer sex, I had studiously avoided one specimen of that lot – budding ornithologists. I had found that that species had serious views about life, environment and the ways of the birds and the bees; displayed disinterest akin to rigor mortis when they were not chasing the feathered creatures for a peek; and, their devotion had somehow prompted natural selection to endow them with facial features that would attract their love-interests. Quite generously, I called them Finkies, paying homage to Bertie Wooster’s newt-crazy friend Fink-Nottle (‘wears horn-rimmed spectacles and has a face like a fish’). That explains my concussed state in bed, being married to one of the Finkies hardly made good biography material, even though there was nothing piscine about her.
The second night, I touched her for the first time. She flinched.
‘Sorry,’ I said.
‘No, it is not…’ she mumbled, sounding strangely flustered.
‘I understand,’ I interrupted.
I did not understand but I could guess. Manuals would have instructed us to talk, to open the cold case of the past or to make sense with some conjecture about the present; but the disclaimer in fine-print warned about the risky procedure and unsure outcome: operation might be successful but patient might die. It was easier to bury.
Next morning, we had a courteous and pleasant breakfast together as usual.
It is possible that that’s all we wanted: to wake up with nice company, to return home after work to a calm life, without tantrums, mood swings and unacceptable demands. We expected flaws in products in a seconds’ sale, and we were happy with a reasonable fit. The partnership was an insurance policy, with barely-affordable premiums flowing out, hoping for support at some crucial later stage.
Our relationship soon reached a comfortable low plateau. I wondered if it was actually a saddle-point: would one wrong step make us head for the agreed polite exit, or were there paths to better states? In a movie or a book, an illness or an accident would have heralded sweet or bitter change. In life, the clock will tick and tick and tick. Months pass, seasons change, hair and teeth fall, bones become brittle, eyesight blurs, hearing fades, with the same play on stage for years.
In-laws came, stayed and left. There seemed to be a slight thaw but remained in cold-storage. She found my porn collection, dusted it without a word, and kept it in a more accessible place. I chanced upon a notebook of hers, open at a page with an incomplete poem that started with the line ‘creak ye ol’ machine for another dying day’. We did not discuss poetry. Poetry came a close second to bird-watching in my list of prejudices.
One lazy weekend, I trudged through Jhumpa Lahiri’s short stories, she watched a gruesome episode of ‘Wire in the Blood’; me sitting on the left side of the sofa, she sprawled over the rest, her head on a pillow next to my right thigh, her left leg on the arm of the sofa and the right over the back.
I raised my head from the mediocre collection of stories and commented on her form, ‘Hardly ladylike.’
‘Titian would appreciate it,’ she muttered.
I reviewed and agreed, ‘True.’
‘Hush…’ Carol Jordan and Tony Hill were inspecting the second brutally murdered victim in another ghastly episode.
I returned to beautiful but formulaic Lahiri.
After a while, I heard her say, ‘Hey, stop that!’
‘What?’
‘Your right hand…’
‘What did it do?’
‘It scratched the top of my head; then it fondled my ears and neck.’
‘Really…? It must have been trying to give you a tender massage.’
‘It made me feel like a pet dog.’
‘Hmm… you don’t look like one… where ye loving eyes?’
We returned to our book and crime-show.
Another weekend, she had the left corner, listening to jazz on iPod. Jazz shared the podium with poetry in my list. I watched ‘Lost in Translation’. She looked up when the movie started.
‘That’s a good set,’ she commented on the buttocks in transparent panties.
‘Yours are better.’
She looked at me. I indicated with two raised eyebrows that my appreciation was true and sincere. She smiled, closed her eyes and listened to jazz.
I was enjoying the relationship between Bill and Scarlett when she observed yet again, this time Scarlett’s tits, ‘That’s a good set, too.’
I realized that I faced a test or a trap. I decided to be truthful, ‘That’s a great set, actually.’
She smiled again. I was not sure if I had passed or failed. Our airwaves seemed to match in the mental spectrum, even though the physical range still suffered static silence.
A few weeks after the first aborted attempt, we tried to make love. Everything seemed to be going according to plan: sufficient foreplay, responsive mutual interest and tender haste. I watched her face, those captivating eyes closed shut, her trembling full lips. And I saw a tear escape down the side. I could have missed that in the dark, but I could not ignore her pain. I guessed that she had gone dry. Like a punctured balloon, I went flaccid, removed myself and lay by her side, not touching. I felt rage and shame. I swore a silent oath never to be caught in such a situation again.
In that same breath, I said to her, ‘Promise me one thing – never allow me to do stuff that you don’t like.’
I turned away and pretended to sleep.
I could sense the turmoil on the other side of the bed. Maybe, with a kind word from my side, she would have broken her own condition and tried to make sense of the situation with stuff from her past, or my past. From the earlier sleuthing efforts of my near and dear, I had gathered bits and pieces to put together a rough picture of the circumstances that transformed a cheerful young lady to that scarred scared state. I think we share a similar past. But, it could be still different for girls and boys. We had thought of trying on a few other occasions, but had made no headway, hampered by my erectile dysfunction. It seemed easy to blame the past for that. But, I did not talk about that then, and I did not want to talk later, even if she discarded her ‘T&C’. There was this gnawing belief deep within that it would be trust deficit, rather than the past or any lessons therein, that would decide our future, or its early demise.
That night, and the other nights, always ended well at the breakfast table. We were like battle-weary warriors, without props like patriotism or glory or idealism or hopes of martyrdom, quite unsure of the war, ready for daily battles fought with decency and old-fashioned rules. I think we were ready to stop thinking if we had sacrificed life and passion, to live for some greater good. After all, what we missed was not like food or water or thought. We could be intimate even without that. We talked of having kids, adopted or ours; ready to live for them. Like the generation of our parents and those before, noble and practical, we seemed old enough to forget dreams, demands, poetry and fiction that could hurt us, to live without experiments that could bring down the shaky edifice.
The album of this new life together has images in a random sequence. There are moments of pain and rejection, but widely separated by vast stretches of decent calm, however artificial, kept the story going. I wondered if we were copying characters in an old novel; the decent behavior and the stiff upper lips from some representation of colonial heritage; and, probably, in a bigger house, we would have tried separate bedrooms. We learned to ignore the physical side, deemed irrelevant or extravagant, especially for ‘seconds’ like us. We knew that we could not demand everything; we should not demand anything. We also knew that a clean break seemed imminent.
One day, less calm than usual, she asked, ‘Should we meet a therapist or psychologist?’
I replied, ‘Doesn’t that usually come after the credits start rolling? I thought we agreed to part without that crap.’
‘Just checking,’ and she had dropped the topic.
The calm, polite and rather formal company probably kept us going. It was not all gloom and doom. The story had other sides. We wanted each other, to be with each other. I wanted to do stuff that made her happy, and she reciprocated. Nothing ostentatious or overboard, just minor things that gave the calmness some hidden depth. There seemed to be a tacit agreement between us to be that way till the quick decent ending. As for that eventuality, it was a question of when rather than whether that would happen. Maybe, that was a leftover from our past, to keep the bags half-packed at all times; or, to expect that of the other.
Time can fly by even if the moments that make it seem dreary. Our life settled into a comfortably numb routine. There was only one minor development. We started playing badminton.
We tried to fit in an hour of play every day, early morning or late night on working days, and at the earliest on weekends. We tried to get home from work early for that. We got irritated with colleagues who delayed our game. Even food was given a shove. I told her that her veggie muck would do for dinner on working days since the preparation of the extra non-veg. dish would have eaten into our playtime.
The open-air court was in between three apartment blocks. We were evenly matched. She had been a university champion or some such minor star. Our on-court behavior was the antithesis of the decorum off-court. When she had control of the game, she did not go for the point; instead, she took great pleasure in flicking the shuttle to all parts, chasing me around the court. I did the same when I dominated the play; and, if I could smash, I made sure I aimed it at her face or body. From behind cupped hands, she would whisper, ‘Is that a smash? You must have got it from your sister.’ I poked back, ‘Hey, finding it tough to move around. Come on, you aren’t playing your fat-ass brother.’ We had to whisper our sledging because of the apartments overlooking the court. The residents who stopped to watch our game usually left with a grimace, hardly pleased with the ferocity of our ‘friendly’ games. We never lost our senses though and the insults never crossed the line, definitely no mention of virility or frigidity or parents. We never carried the game off-court. Back home, we downed a jug of lime juice and munched a few bananas to cool down. On Saturdays, we shared two bottles of beer. Then, we extended our ‘fighting spirit’ with a beer race, downing the first mug with one long gulp and, the loser had to invert the glass over his or her head along with the remaining contents. The second mug was for returning to our normal charade.
A few months after our first anniversary, she asked if we could go for a trip, for a break from house-work. We got a week’s leave sanctioned, and clubbed with a few public holidays, we had about ten days. We did not want to waste time on travel and decided to ‘sack out’ at a beach resort. We packed our badminton rackets and a case of shuttlecock, just in case we felt like playing.
The resort was packed with tourists but the place was spacious. The food was good. The first day we swam together and took a long walk on the beach. We must have seemed strange to others, the only couple on the beach not in close embrace, not even walking hand-in-hand. We were just not used to public display of affection; or we were unsure, or scared. Back in our room, we made a few minor changes to our routine. We sat close, touching, caressing, talking, kissing, but like our badminton games, we drew a line we did not cross. We shifted the line gradually. At times, it felt like shaping moist clay on a potter’s wheel, meditative, near-reverential, praying that it would hold and not crumble.
On the third day, we were interrupted. We heard knocking on our door. I opened the door to find a young couple outside.
‘Uncle, sorry to trouble you,’ the young man said. His girl stood a little away, looking inside, smiling sweetly, probably at her. The lad continued, ‘Uncle, can I borrow a condom?’
I am not sure what kept me from laughing aloud. It must have been their matter-of-fact nature. If they had been giggling or prancing childishly, I would have reacted differently, I am sure. I did not even feel like passing a quip about ‘borrow’.
I nodded and slipped inside. She went to the door and chatted with the young couple till I returned with three packets.
‘Thank you, Uncle,’ the young man said.
‘Aunty, see you around,’ the girl said.
We waved at them, like some affectionate uncle and aunty bidding farewell at a railway station. 
 The next day, around dusk, we were on the beach waiting for the sun to set. She was sitting next to me.
‘Can you sit in front of me, please?’ I asked her.
She raised an eyebrow, not the silencing one, just the questioning one. She moved. I gave her directions. She did not complain. She sat sideways, her legs tucked under, turned a little towards the sun, her face in profile. I watched the sun set, the reflection of that orange-red globe in her eyes, the dusk light filtering through her long lashes. She turned to look at me.
‘Don’t move,’ I ordered, like an artist to a model. She returned to her pose, a smile in her eyes.
We sat like that for a long time, till it was dark and the beach was deserted. We stood up, not hand-in-hand, not touching, enjoying the cool night air.
‘You love me,’ I told her.
She turned to me. I could make out a raised eyebrow.
‘Corny, I know,’ I laughed. ‘But that’s what I feel. Isn’t it better that way? What’s the point in telling you that I love you if you don’t feel it?’
She did not say anything. She kept staring. I guess I had gone on too long with the ‘corny’ stuff.
‘You remember my condition?’ I asked. She gave a slight nod. I continued, ‘I will break it. If we do part ways, I am quite sure I won’t give you up easily.’
She still remained silent.
‘Aren’t you going to say anything?’ I asked.
‘Do you want to play badminton tomorrow?’ she asked.
‘What…?’ I exclaimed. It took me a few moments to realize that she wanted to change the topic.
The next morning, at the breakfast table, we were polite and courteous, as usual.
‘Shall I get you pancakes?’ she offered.
‘Yes, please.’
She came back with a plate for me, ‘I poured maple syrup.’
 ‘Thank you, I said, ‘I ordered dosa for you, masala dosa, is that ok?’
‘Yes, thanks.’
We ate silently for a while.
‘Did you read today’s paper?’ I asked.
‘Hmm…’
‘That joker actually thinks he is going to be PM.’
‘Maybe, the country needs him,’ she said.
‘Are you serious?’
‘Strangely, yes.’
‘He gives me the creeps.’
‘Me too…’
‘Worse than your ‘Wire in the Blood’ stuff…’
‘You are probably right.’ She laughed and said, ‘I think I know who you want.’
I smiled but did not take the bait. Our politics could easily become like our badminton games.
‘She does not have a great set, you know,’ she goaded.
I laughed. ‘Would you like another cup of coffee?’ I asked.
‘Yes, please,’ she said.
I asked a waiter for two cups of strong coffee.
‘I need that to wake up,’ I said, ‘still sleepy, slept too little.’
‘Hmmm… same here.’ She then asked, ‘So, are you too tired for a game of badminton?’
‘Never, never,’ I said.
We finished breakfast, walked slowly past the foyer, towards our room, just another near-middle-aged couple, polite and formal in ways.
When we were near our room, I exclaimed, ‘Fuck!’
She turned to me, quite alarmed, looking around to make sure that we were not offending anyone, ‘What happened?’
‘Bloody fuck!’ I said again. I asked her, ‘Do you know the young couple’s room?’
‘Three doors from ours, why?’ After a pause, she said, ‘Oh…’ She grinned, ‘Did we finish our stock?’
I knocked at the young couple’s door. She stood behind me, looking away.
The young lady opened the door. I stepped aside and let her do the talking.
The girl raced inside. Her guy stepped out of the bathroom then, a towel wrapped around his waist. He turned to me and greeted cheerfully, ‘Good morning, Uncle. How are you?’
‘Very good, how are you?’
The young woman returned with three or four and handed it over to her.
‘Thanks a lot,’ she said.
‘See you around, aunty!’
This time, they stood at their doorway and waved us goodbye.
We entered our room and locked the door.
‘So, what about that badminton game?’ she asked. ‘Should I unpack the rackets?’ That had remained in our suitcase.
‘Oh, I don’t think I need the racket or the court, I am going to thrash you right here,’ I swore.
‘Really…?’
I pulled her roughly to me and kissed her.
I heard her say, ‘You love me, too.’
‘God, that does sound corny,’ I said.
We laughed.