GOWANUS Winter 2002

Family Affairs 
By Alpa Sheth


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When the gas cylinder man came to deliver a refill that morning, he was surprised to see Swati at home. ‘Memsaab, have you stopped working? Or is Radhabai on leave?’

‘Neither’, she shook her head with a smile. It was tiring how often she had replied to the same question that day. The vegetable-seller, the ironing man, the postwoman. How could she tell them, any of them, that there had been no job, that she had been gone each day tending to a home, another man's home? But it was over now, all of it, as suddenly as it had begun. The madness that had possessed her the past three years had worn itself out, and she was back where she belonged.

It felt strange to be at home at this hour, hearing the sound of the cooker hissing, the mustard seeds crackling in the tadka, spewing forth a tiny spray of oil. She aimlessly lifted the lids off the cooking pots, leaving behind, much to Radha’s annoyance, a trail of condensed droplets staining the carefully garnished food. The aroma of freshly cooked dal sprinkled with corriander leaves came wafting from the deep copper-bottomed vessel. The cauliflower was cooked exactly as she had taught Radha, the giant inflorescence gently hand-plucked into bite-sized pieces. In the oven, a vegetable pie was turning a soft golden colour beneath a generous sprinkling of sesame seeds and cream of wheat which, as she had once explained to Radha, gave it the crispy edge. The uniformly-sized glass tiffin boxes displayed colourful homemade snacks. She ran a finger along the counter tops. There was not even a speck of dust. The kitchen rags were washed and ironed and lay neatly stacked on the shelf that once used to hold her recipe books. Where had the books disappeared to? Had Radha thrown them away, finding little use for them? She daren’t ask. The warm airy room that was once her bastion now made her feel superfluous, a visitor in an automated workshop run seamlessly by a pair of well-oiled invisible robots. Wasn’t that what she had always wanted? And hadn’t she glowed with pride when her husband Ravi once commented admiringly, ‘You’ve managed to create such wonderful, smooth-running home.’ 

In another, smaller flat not too far away, Amit would still be sleeping in the bed where the previous night he would have furrowed some space to lie down between a mixed heap of washed and unwashed clothes. Presently he would wake up and make his way into the kitchen to prepare his coffee. He would pick up the paper from outside his door and glance through the headlines. He scarcely ever looked at his own column and never saved a copy. This done, he would sit at his computer and start pounding on his keyboard to churn out another article in time for the afternoon deadline. Soon enough, one of his admirers or an artist friend would call up to discuss a new-fangled art theory with him over lunch. That would take care of his midday meal. Dinner was usually an affair of drinks and hors d’oeuvres courtesy of some patron or another. In the city of Mumbai there was no dearth of social animals ready to keep the likes of him well fed. He would probably not notice, Swati thought, that the throw cushions in the living room were not plumped up, that the part-time maid had again pocketed some money from his wallet. And even if he did, it would not bother him. He had been astounded by her own observations, her insights into the machiavellian workings of people’s minds. But as the days went by, the finer details she had drawn to his attention became reduced to petty bickerings. Her initial deep thoughts eventually turned into distasteful, unintellectual discussions of other people’s private affairs and low gossip. Her warnings about his dangerously dipping coffers became annoying attempts to drag him into the mundane world of finances. 

In the beginning she thought he would miss her terribly, the ten o’clock announcement of her arrival each morning with a subtle floral scent and the smell of crisp cotton sarees, her swift arrangement of his home, his life. But she wondered what over time he would remember of her and if he would feel the pocket of empty space in the corner of the room on the divan covered with a blockprinted maroon bedspread that was her favourite perch. Each evening as she had prepared to leave for home, there had always been a plaintive supplication, ‘Stay just a little while longer.’ Later, the words became just a simple goodbye, not to be responded to.

There had been no fights, just a gradual drifting apart, a saddening knowledge that the affair had exhausted its useful life, and when she finally remarked, ‘I won’t be coming tomorrow’, he had looked completely lost for a moment but then nodded slowly in understanding. More than anything, both knew there was to be no fuss. She left a note--where and when he had to pay the bills, the maid’s salary, important telephone numbers. 

But now as the morning passed, the urge to call him and check to see if he was alright was irresistible. She could still see his destitute face when she made her ominous pronouncement. She needed to know he was okay, that he was managing well. If only someone could tie up her hands and prevent them from dialling his number. But her resolve quickly crumbled. A female voice came on the line, it sounded like Aarti’s, the woman who was doing her thesis on Amit’s work. Swati put down the phone without speaking. She broke into a nervous sweat. So that was how the final break had to come. 

Unable to let go of the receiver, she called her husband on his cell phone. It was months since she’d called him like this, at noon. Could he come for lunch? she asked. If he was surprised, he showed no sign of it and agreed to be home in half an hour. He would know her affair had ended. There would be signs of it everywhere, she decided, even though nothing would be said about it, just as nothing had been said about when it was still going on. Except once, when their son Rahul wanted to get admitted to a prestigious south Mumbai junior college and didn’t have the requisite marks. Ravi had suggested, ‘Why don’t you ask your friend Amit? He’s sure to know the principal.’ Swati was very afraid at first - there it was, all out in the open but without any tantrums or ugly scenes, quite the anticlimax of what she had been dreading. But afterwards she seethed with rage. She wanted to ask why he was delegating his parental responsibility to another man. She wanted to shout, ‘Do you not care that I’m having an affair? Do you know why things have come to this?’ Instead, she had done exactly as he had asked her, and the admission was obtained.

For the past five years Ravi had left home at five in the morning and played eighteen holes of golf before taking a shower at the club and going to the office. ‘If you had given me a fraction of the time you do your golf, you would not have lost me...’ Swati had often imagined telling him in a glorious outburst when he should eventually accost her about the affair. But the chance never came. At first she thought golf was a cover for seeing another woman. She called at the club and was told he was out on the course with his golf partner Arun. Friends in whom she confided explained his obsession with the game as part of a mid-life crisis, capable of being understood only by fellow golfers. His secretary, whom Swati had found for him, confirmed that there had been no to strange women’s calls for Sir. 

During lunch Ravi chatted about the office and his morning golf in the same easy way that they used to talk many years ago. His cheery, unruffable expression which had angered her so for the past four years now seemed to inspire merely serenity. They discussed Rahul’s emails from Paris and his never-ending need for money. ‘I wish we had never let him go’, Swati sighed. ‘I miss him more than I had expected. But he needed to escape his dysfunctional home.’ Ravi patted her head and smiled, ‘Don’t be so harsh on yourself. We’ve given him a good upbringing.’ And when he flashed her his still brilliant smile, she knew it would all work out. It was just a matter of time. She wondered why she had ever gotten involved with Amit in the first place, who was probably in bed with that Aarti woman by now. 

There were many things she would need to change. The different bedrooms, for one. It was Ravi who had initiated separate rooms, since he left very early each morning and did not wish to disturb her. It had not mattered at the time; she was glad to escape his snoring. But now she needed the reassurance of his presence each night, of her man by her side having come home to roost after a hard day’s work. She would find out who his friends were, she would invite them for dinner, thus discreetly announcing the return of the prodigal wife. An absence of three years would take a while to make up for, but with some perseverance she knew she could do it. On an impulse, she called Arun, her husband's golfing friend and busness partner, to plan a surprise party for Ravi's birthday. 

Arun was not enthused with the idea. ‘I’ve already planned a party at the club for him.’ A guy thing, he explained, giving her his age-old Gentlemen-Only-Ladies-Forbidden explanation, the acronym of the game. She was annoyed by this summary appropriation of her husband by a bunch of half-retired men who had nothing better to do each morning than push a ball into a hole. She would learn to wean him away from golf. It was what had destroyed the marriage in the first place. 

She decided that in time she would also invite Ravi’s family for dinner. They had read about her scandalous affair in a gossip magazine a year ago and had called up Ravi, outraged, urging him to divorce her. And Ravi had patiently borne the brunt of their anger and calmed them down. ‘Things will sort themselves. We just need space and time to work things out’, he told them. She had loved him then and hated him too. They would know, when they saw her and Ravi together again, that the time he had given her so graciously had helped heal matters and that she was whole again, their daughter-in-law once more, the mother of their grandchild. 

Suddenly she felt old. The years of the affair had kept her excited like a schoolgirl, breathlessly anticipating the embrace that would welcome her on reaching Amit’s apartment every morning. Each day had been a celebration. How many new artists, writers, politicians she had met in his company! The exchange of ideas with celebrated intellects had given her an entirely fresh perception of the world. She would never be the same again. No, she could not go back to the kitty parties, the empty babbles of idle women. She had left Amit, but she still possessed world he had opened to her. She would enroll as a Ph.D. student in Art History. A long time ago, before her marriage and the child, she had been a good artist, a favorite student of a famous painter. He had raged at her when she had announced her forthcoming wedding. ‘You'll give it all up, I know. I wonder why I waste my time with women students’, he lamented. And now she knew she would never in fact go back to her easel again. She had lost it, the daring to create. All she could do now was to appreciate other people’s work. But could she, a failed artist, do even that without prejudice or rancour? Perhaps that was why she had been so attracted to Amit. A man so seemingly free of craftiness and manipulation. He knew nothing about money except how to spend it without a care. His childlike faith that the world would take care of him was beguiling. 

But living with Ravi for all these years, Swati had learnt about human nature and seizing opportunities, faith and betrayal and what it took to be a successful business person. She had learned to see the subterfuge behind the devious smile and the implicit request for a favour that accompanied a dinner invitation. Her son Rahul was different. He had an artistic temperament; he had always been good in the arts, and Swati suspected his poor marks in the board exam were deliberate so that he would not have to take science. He went to Paris as soon as he finished junior college. The way he used to pay attention to the tiniest details of her gear, she had imagined him one day as a world-renowned designer. He would touch her blouse, shake his head and bring out the different one from the cupboard, one she would have never dreamed of wearing. The effect would be stunning. He could transform her from a middle-aged mother into a woman who could make heads turn. He accompanied her on trips to the jeweller’s, his eyes falling on incongruous bits of precious stones that he would mosaic together into a sketch for the jeweller to realize. 

In many ways he had been so sensitive that she had never felt the absence of a daughter. He introduced her to new writing, films and music. Sometimes, when she was feeling low, she had been tempted to speak to him about Amit and her, but she had not felt it right to burden a son with that kind of confidence. So she held back, grieving for the loss a potential friend. Sometimes she saw a dark shadow on his face and was sure he understood. 

She would convince him to come back to India. Was not the world a global village, after all, and could he not be just as famous whilst living here in India? She thought of his marriage, his children, her grandchildren. I am truly growing old, she sighed. I’m pining for the baubles of security I once disdained. I’ll build a house in Alibaug for Rahul where he can work, and I’ll buy him a private boat he can use to come to Mumbai. Sometimes she talked about this to Ravi - perhaps they could go the next weekend to Alibaug and look at some plots. Suddenly there was so much to be done. Amit already lay somewhere in the haze that was her distant past. In time, perhaps she would be able to reclaim him as a friend. They would laugh about the time they were lovers. She would introduce her son, and perhaps Amit would be able to give him a lift in his career. With his contacts, Amit could do anything. Her world would then come full circle, uniting her past and her present. 

That evening when Ravi came home, she told him about her plans for Rahul, the beach house, the fashion studio, grandchildren romping in the white sand while son and mother discussed colours, patterns, prints. In her plans, there was no place for a daughter-in-law except as a dutiful mother of the children, quietly ministering to her family’s needs. But she felt ashamed of this thought and recast the roles. Perhaps she would even acquire a daughter in Rahul’s wife, as every prospective mother-in-law does.

Ravi heard her in silence, his eyes staring at the bottle of mouth-freshening fennel seeds in his hands. The bottle had a beaded outer lining forming shapes of the swastika, flowers and geometric patterns. It took the women of Palitana a month to string the beads together to make it. When she stopped speaking he laid the bottle on the centre of the table and took her hands into his own soft pudgy palms. It was years since she had felt his touch. How silky and uncalloused his hands were, smelling of fresh soap instead of the stale cigarette odour from Amit’s. 

 ‘Swati, I think it is time you know. Rahul is different. He has always been so. Do you remember his teenage years when you asked him why he didn’t bring girlfriends home? The truth was, there were no girlfriends. It was just Atul, always Atul, hanging about day and night. And now in Paris there is a Pierre-Somebody.’ 

Swati looked at him disbelievingly. How had she been left out of this vital piece of information? Or had she in her own preoccupations refused to interpret the signs correctly? Her son was a homosexual? That sort of thing only happened in Amit’s outlandish circle, not in the homes of respectable people like herself. 

‘Rahul wanted to tell you, but he didn’t know how to put it. I thought he should wait...until you were ready. He didn't actually tell me either. I simply understood.’

She stared at him, this husband of more than two decades with whom she had not shared a bed for the past five years. Then she got up and walked past the door opening from the living room into Rahul's bedroom and shut the door behind her. The pitch darkness of the room overwhelmed her as if she had suddenly gone blind. She felt the presence of a pair of male figures reclining on the bed, each a mirror image of the other. Hands were entwined behind heads cradled on raised pillows. Smoke rings rose from their invisible mouths. There was a faint sound of someone mournfully strumming a guitar. Only, it wasn’t Rahul and Atul she sensed lying on the bed but her husband and his friend Arun. Joking, laughing, planning golf trips abroad... And suddenly she was not sure of anything anymore.

(Alpa Sheth  did  graduate studies at the University of California Berkeley, in Structural Engineering. After a stint of working in the
Bay Area, she  now lives in Mumbai, where she is a partner in a
Design Consultancy firm.)