Friday, July 8, 2016

Of Piss-pots and Underclothes

1996. New Year’s Eve. Or was it 1995? Let it be 1996. Twenty years back!
I was in a bad mood. Did it have to do with a relative’s death? Folks back home phoned that evening to inform about the demise. Aren’t they always there to share grief? That must have spoiled the festive spirit, not that there was much of that that year. Colleagues had ganged up and gone on a cycling trip, there were just two or three miserable ones in the hostel. Old friends had left town to be with their family. Loneliness had made a habit of giving me company on holidays.
Around nine pm, Sushmita knocked at my door.
“You busy?” she asked, looking as bored as I was.
I shrugged and tilted my head towards the stereo. What was playing, Moody Blues, Guns and Roses or The Doors?
“That suits my mood,” she said, “can I enter?”
In those hostel days, fate made us share such moments regularly. The first time, she was in that state of aching vacuum one suffers after a long and fulfilling stay with one’s love. She needed someone in the transition stage between invigorating coupling and professional ennui. I dozed while she read my poems. She copied one to send to her love. The last time, she told me that it was over with the old love and that he was being unreasonable, heartbroken and clinging. I asked her if she had found someone new. She gave a noncommittal shrug. The gossip on campus was that she was in an affair with an unmarried young professor. I did not ask her about that. Her love affairs failed to interest me–tried and tested stereotypes of eligible bachelors any girl’s parents would approve, even without conflicting backgrounds.
She was decent company when I was miserable and bored. Fortunately, those moments were rare. Life was hectic with eighty-hour weeks the norm, PhD research on fifth gear, the nincompoops among faculty and fellow-students with their petty office politics and power struggles screwing up my life. On some Sundays and holidays, in the ten days before payday particularly, undemanding company and a good chat were the palliatives prescribed. We had nice hostel rooms. Mine had two beds and an attached bathroom. Hers was smaller, on the top floor, but boasted a balcony. In my room, we took the two beds and talked to the ceiling. In hers, if we were not on the balcony, I grabbed the bed and she lay sprawled on floor-cushions. There was no danger of either of us being attracted to the other. In those days, I used to classify girls into four categories based on two binary criterion, ‘Interesting’ and ‘Sexually Attractive’. There could have been a subliminal criterion, ‘Long-term’. She was interesting but not sexually attractive, and definitely not long-term material. Now I might classify her differently. She was physically attractive, very much so in fact. About five feet four, slender, beautiful and athletic (she was into jogging and table tennis), a lot like that girl invited onto stage in the Bruce Springsteen video (that Friends girl). She did not stir any sexual interest in me. The reasons for that could have been whacky or straightforward, I just can’t remember in this case. Maybe, I thought she wore not-so-clean or unkempt underwear. I am not saying she did, how would I know, or did I have to notice on one of my visits. Life was simple. I wonder when I gave up on that classification, probably with the recession in choice.
On that New Year’s Eve, we were together till midnight. I remember that the last hour wasn’t too pleasant. Nothing to do with her, my tummy felt bloated and there was the danger of flatulence. I could have asked her to step out of my room but I waited till we exchanged New Year greetings. We seemed genuinely glad to have had each other that night. I raced to the toilet as soon as she left. The bad mood returned to spend a sleepless night with me. Maybe, I wanted someone who wouldn’t walk away at midnight, someone to hold, someone I classified as ‘interesting’ and ‘sexually attractive’, not just someone to while away time, though I am not sure how I would have tackled my bloated tummy then.
The first few days of that year had other distractions. A colleague got hurt during a volleyball game. That evening, we thought it was a minor fall and a night’s rest would be enough. Early next morning, he was howling with pain. I volunteered to take him to a hospital. I am not sure how or why I took on that task. Most were surprised with my altruism and decisiveness. I called for the Institute’s car and took him to the hospital. I half-carried him from the out-patients’ to the x-ray room and then to the consulting orthopaedic doctor, there wasn’t a single wheel-chair available, with numerous runs to the billing section and the pharmacy in between. Between us, we had just enough money to cover the expenses. The plastering took a few hours. My colleague had torn ligaments in one foot and both hands.
He was one of the nicest chaps in my batch. We were not bosom buddies. He was the type of guy I could ask for help, if required. I am not sure he considered me that way.
Around noon, we were still two hours away from being discharged, there was a big problem. He wanted to urinate and quite desperately. I asked a nurse for assistance. She gave me a plastic flask. I asked her if there was some nurse to help. “Wait,” she said, “someone will come.” We waited for fifteen minutes. I cursed him and every god. He maintained a very apologetic silence. I fumbled with his pyjamas, aligned the flask and his penis, collected the urine, emptied and washed the flask in the toilet. We did not speak till I dumped him in his hostel room. He said, “Thanks da.” Nice chap that he was, that sounded as if he meant it. I went to my room and took a long shower to wash away the sickening touch of hospitals. At the end of the day, he had his close circle of friends around him with gifts of fruits and sweets. They offered to help at all times, probably sure he would not ask. I had work and my old lonely life.
That weekend, or was it the next, I went to a pub in town. Its clientele was mostly young professionals, bankers and software engineers, in groups for a few hours of loud cheer. I had never been there alone. It wasn’t a drinking hole for the obsessive. I ordered a double large of rum and a pitcher of beer to chase that down. I sat at a table, well in the shadows, away from the crowd and noise. I thought about meaningless relationships and such transitory irritants. The bad mood I nursed on New Year’s Eve was back with a vengeance. I kept my head down.
“When did you start this?” a voice shouted at me from above.
I looked up. I recognized the source.
“Start what?” I asked belligerently.
“Drinking alone,” she whispered.
“Don’t make it sound as if I fucked your,” I stopped. My voice sounded strange even to me.
Sheela slid into the seat next to me.
“What’s happened?” she asked.
“Don’t even think of mothering me,” I snarled, “go.”
“Ok, I will go,” she said, “I am there if you need me.”
I laughed bitterly.
“Well, I am at that table in that far corner,” she pointed, before clarifying, “with my friends.” That must have been to keep me away from that table or to warn me from making a fool of myself.
I returned to my drink. I pinched the tip of my nose. I couldn’t feel it. That’s the way I wanted to be, comfortably numb.
I have known Sheela all my life. She is older by couple of years. Our families are the best of friends. For a long time, I did not classify her, including her in the safe-list of family. Then, I relented and ticked both columns. She is not tall, probably just five two, her body is on the borderline of plump and voluptuous, has a nice laugh and a lovely smile, she is pretty, her nose is crooked and bit of a blob but rather cute, I love her eyes, she can make a guy think a lot of nice things with those.
 Blame it on the drink, or on the festering bitterness that brought me to the joint that night, I wasn’t thinking nice things. I didn’t turn to look at her group. I could see her right in front of me. I smirked and stripped her naked. I was into a rape fantasy when she interrupted my evening once again.
“What do you want?” I snapped at her disapproving face.
“Can you drop me off? The girls are going to a club and I am not in the mood for it,” she said.
“Say please,” I drawled like a B-movie villain.
“Finish off your drink,” she said, “let me go and tell the girls. Do you want to meet them? Better not, I think.” She did not wait for my snort.
Outside, she decided that I needed a good walk to clear my head. It was a mile and a quarter to her place just off MG Road. I purposely lengthened my stride. She did not complain. It was a dark moonless night, the clichéd start to many a crime scene I thought. We did not talk. We must have looked like a regular couple after a miserable weekend dinner out, waiting to get home to retreat to each one’s corner or to shout and fight, or to have fast selfish sex to exorcize the dark demons within.
At the crossroad next to the grand old Victoria Hotel, a group of drunken revellers blocked our path. They whistled and commented lewdly at Sheela. I stared at them. I heard Sheela telling me not to be stupid. The young men must have realized that I was one of them. They laughed and went in another direction, along Residency Road. The rest of the way, I held her right arm, just above the elbow, and dragged her along. I let go only at the gate to her apartment.
“Coming in?” she asked.
“No, I am feeling sleepy,” I replied.
“See you,” she said.
“Go up,” I said, “signal from the balcony.”
I waited till she waved at me from the balcony of her apartment. I waved back. I took a rickshaw to my hostel.
The next morning, a Sunday, I was woken early around half past six. Someone was knocking on my door. I opened. It was Sheela, carrying a bulky hamper.
“What are you doing here at this hour?” I protested.
She frowned at my nightwear, a torn T-shirt and elastic-less shorts. I doubt she could make out that I was not wearing underwear.
She told me to get ready for breakfast. She tidied the room. She muttered pigsty. It wasn’t so. Spartan and featureless maybe, but I wasn’t the stereotype messy bachelor.
While I tried to wash away sleep and a hangover, she cleared the table of my papers and books, laid out two paper cups and two paper plates, a pile of pancakes and a bottle of maple syrup. There was a flask with hot instant coffee. She rummaged among my cassette tapes. Yanni was on the stereo when I joined her.
“Isn’t it a bit too early for Yanni?” I asked. “I thought I had hidden that well. I can tolerate him only when I am constipated.”
She screwed up her nose. I sat next to her, she on the bed and me on the chair, and reached for the pancakes.
“I love you,” I told her.
“Don’t I know,” she said, “eat. Let me hope your love lasts till the end of that pile.”
By chance or design, whenever we got together, one of us wooed the other.
That, of course, excludes the previous night. She got around to that after coffee.
“What were you up to yesterday?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I muttered guiltily, “hey, a guy should let off some steam once in a while. You should try it out.”
“Don’t,” she said, softly, “don’t.”
We left it at that. I changed topics quickly.
“Last time I went home, I met Aunty Ramani,” I said.
“Oh, oh,” she groaned, “that gasbag.”
“She told me that you are a lesbian,” I said, “she went blue in the face to tell me that.” I laughed.
Sheela did not laugh.
“Of all the people, why did you tell her?” I enquired.
“She kept on pestering me and my parents–about how old I am, that I should get married soon or I would end up a dried old spinster.”
“Well, are you?” I asked.
“What do you think?”
“Oh, I love lesbians. Just the thought of them gives me a hard-on.”
“Don’t be vulgar,” she said.
She ticking me off was nothing new. At age six, I asked her if she wore a brassiere. I was rather proud of adding that word to my vocabulary, with proper pronunciation and all. She sneaked to her mother who told my mother and I faced a long period of close supervision. At age twelve, I kicked her butt, as usual, and she went wailing to my mother. I was advised, “She is a lady now. You are not supposed to kick ladies.”
“By the way, do you know what you did to me last night?” she said, bringing me back to the present.
“I swear I dropped you off at the gate.”
She raised her right arm and raised the sleeve of her cotton top. The imprint of a tight grip was quite clear on the fair inside.
“I did that?” I asked incredulously.
“You did that!” She seemed terribly pleased. For a moment I imagined her sending a photo of the abused part to our respective mothers with a succinct note, “He did that!”
I do not know what made me lean forward and kiss the bruise. She did not flinch back. My mouth stayed there for a while, even let my tongue do its healing touch.
When I pulled back and looked at her half-crazy half-scared she would shout rape, I was surprised to see her smiling. She hugged me, tight, with her arms on my shoulder. I let my arms circle around her back, my fingers on the back straps of her bra.
“So, you do wear a bra,” I noted.
“Don’t spoil the moment, you idiot,” she growled.
We kissed then. It was kind of weird kissing a girl for the first time after knowing her well for about a quarter of a century.
“I have got the scholarship,” she told me when we parted for a breather.
“Wonderful,” I said, “Cambridge, right?”
“No, a univ in Essex,” she said.
“When do you leave?”
“End of this month. I have given my resignation letter.”
“Lovely,” I kissed her again, briefly.
She did not remain an alleged lesbian for long. A few years later, she married and had half a dozen kids, or some number close to that.
I met her two days back at a supermarket–hence this memoir.
“Finally, we meet,” she exclaimed. “Do you know how long I have tried to contact you? Whenever I meet your folks, they tell me that they too are having the same problem. In which hole have you been hiding?”
“Can I speak?” I asked.
“Speak,” she laughed, and then grew serious, “when she…I heard about it, you know…I tried contacting you. Why didn’t you contact me, you idiot? I know, I know, what use…but you should have contacted me…”
“So many bridges over that water, isn’t that the phrase?” I said, “Time bleeds and all that, you know.” I laughed.
“I know you,” she leaned towards me and whispered, “don’t forget that. I know that you never let go.”
“But, you did, my love, you did,” I protested. Two kids standing next to her looked at us, looking bemused and rather embarrassed.
I looked at them. I turned to Sheela and raised an eyebrow.
“Oh, I forgot,” she exclaimed. “These are my daughters. Can’t you make out? Don’t they look like you?” She gave a hoot of laughter. “Kids, this is your long lost…” she gave a dramatic pause, “uncle.”
She introduced them. One was fifteen and the other twelve.
I whispered to her, “Ah, so sad, not mine after all.”
“If only kisses could impregnate,” she whispered back.
The kids were by then totally fed up with our juvenile delinquency. They kept on looking at someone behind me, as if pleading for help.
“I say, they do look a lot like him,” a jovial baritone interrupted our whispers.
“Ah, the villain enters,” Sheela announced theatrically.
She introduced her husband. He’s reasonably good-looking, more the Tom Hanks variety rather than Tom Cruise, medium height, not too stocky and looks well-settled and wealthy–exactly the husband material I wanted for her. He said the usual, “she has told me all about you.” He suggested a lunch-party to celebrate the return of the prodigal friend. I exclaimed, “of course.” Her kids did not hide their dismay. She rolled her eyes. She knew I would rather leave town than attend such a get-together. We were never into sharing each other. He seems to be a very nice guy. He reminded me of the colleague with the torn ligaments. I have been having these recurring visions, the last two days, of sharing a meal with a piss-pot and a bra.

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