By Shireen Joanna
Tara peered into the mirror. The room’s single overhead bulb had died in a blown fuse, and the waning twilight seemed trapped between the musty walls. Except for the big gray eyes (‘I could drown in them,’ he often whispered), her reflection looked old and lifeless. Her long dark hair still fell all the way down to her shoulders, but in a few years it wouldn't be dark anymore. Her slightly fleshy cheeks, once eager to dimple, sagged. She threw back her shoulders, squarish shoulders, not gently sloping or feminine. They stood patient and obstinate, ready for battle with the world.
How she looked didn’t matter really except when she had to see her age in the narrowing of his eyes as he held her. But it was only her round upturned breasts he so loved that saved her figure from being downright boyish. ‘You’re firmer than an eighteen-year old,’ he would say in his lazy way, and they laughed together. Her hair was cut in what people were now calling layers, and the shortest layer flapped around her oval face when she walked and gave her the illusion of early youth. Though the mirror concealed it, she knew her skin was glowing with fear and anticipation at the thought sitting with him in a dark movie theater, his moist soft hand in hers, turning her head every now and then to watch the flicker of unreal lights on his absorbed face.
Just then the telephone rang and she cradled it between her shoulder and ear as she set the lipstick down and picked up a hairbrush.
‘What time should I be there?’ he said in a gruff voice. His real voice was thin and nasal, the gruffness just an affectation when he telephoned her. When they first met he used to do bad but funny imitations of Elvis, and the gruffness was still an affectation from that time. But these days she found herself wishing he would speak normally.
‘I got off work early today.’
‘I didn’t ask you what time you got off work,’ he said, his voice rising to almost his normal pitch. ‘I asked what time I should be there.’
‘Good. Make dinner. I’m starving. Do you have Rasam powder in your shack? Check. I’ll hold on.’
‘It’s not a shack!’ she burst out before she could help it. ‘I’ve told you not to say that!’
He laughed. ‘What does it matter what it is? I’ll be there soon.’
She banged the phone down and put the brush back on the dressing table and wondered if he would soon discard her for a younger woman. Then she suddenly realized that of course he would. It was a thought that had entered her head a week ago and refused to leave, like a pesky kitchen fly. She glanced at the double bed taking up almost all the space in her tiny bedroom. The sheets were still crumpled from their hasty lovemaking the day before. Under the bed a pair of his black socks lay bunched up like fists. There had been an emergency at the Center and she had had to work all the previous night. When she let herself into the apartment late in the morning she was so tired she fell asleep in the living room without even taking off her shoes. But even now that she had the time to do so she was reluctant to disturb his socks.
He had not always treated her this way. Even after several months of their affair, he still brought her wildflowers he picked at the lake when he went there with his wife and family. And he still took photographs of her as she slept and presented them to her later on, when he was in her tiny kitchen preparing one of the exotic Chinese dishes she had never before heard of. She could not recollect when it was that he had changed, just as she could not remember when exactly she found herself taking long walks past the lake near his home.
Perhaps both had happened around the same time, she thought, sitting down on the edge of the bed, about a year ago when she started spending more and more evenings alone.
But even as he began to bang doors or sit sullenly alone in the bedroom, smoking, his things remained there the same as always--those socks, the blue windbreaker that hung on a nail in the bedroom door, the small yellow lighter they both shared, the spare cotton T-shirt he wore when he spent the night, now nestled in between her saris and skirts. They all had the same smell to them, felt the same against her cheek, looked the same, as though they retained his early ardor as a comfort to her.
She glanced one more time at the socks, then walked through the small living room to the kitchen beyond and opened the cabinets, looking for Rasam powder. Rows of glass and plastic containers laid on sheets of old news- papers, the consequence of his obsessive tidiness, shimmered through her tears, but there was no Rasam in sight.
The phone rang again, and she considered not answering. But the instrument had the same shrill tone his voice had acquired of late and seemed to demand that she pick it up.
‘You hung up on me,’ he said in his normal pitch. ‘Did you check about the powder?’
‘I don’t have any. We were supposed to go to the movie today.’
‘Cut some onions and stuff. I’ll pick up some powder. I’m on my way.’
‘What about the movie?’
‘Because I say so, isn’t that enough?’
‘Stop nagging, Tara. I’ll explain when I get there.’
‘I showered and changed already. I’ve been waiting to go.’
‘Listen.’ He lowered his voice. ‘My wife’s uncle’s come down on a visit. He might go to the movie himself. We don’t want to bump into him.’
All at once she saw: the Face.
In the darkness of the apartment she thought she could see his wife’s face, though she had never observed the woman in the flesh. This happened often nowadays, but it first began a year ago when she started taking walks down Lake Avenue. In the very place where he had lived in her mind, now the Face hovered. She pictured the house with its three bedrooms, living room and verandah. She saw the Face framed in a window over the kitchen sink at the back of the house, pinched and haggard like her own, waiting for him to come home. Then jealousy scorched the cauldron her emotions, leaving no more room for thought.
‘How could you do this to me?’ she demanded. ‘Can’t we go to a different movie?’
‘Waste twenty rupees on a film I know nothing about? I’m tired, so just shut up and hang up the phone.’
She walked over to the open window. A breeze touched her face, and she thought she saw a glimmer from off the lake far away. She could not explain why she had begun taking walks to the street where he and his wife lived. Nor why, where the road turned left she always stopped, trembling, unable to go the last hundred paces, or why, standing under the old mango tree with the stray dogs and fruit-sellers, she was seized with pity for this woman whom she so hated.
She slipped on a pair of yellow straight-cut slacks and pulled a white cotton T-shirt over her head. The shirt had ‘Stop Child Marriage in Our Villages!’ painted on it in a crude hand. A co-worker at the social welfare clinic where she worked had given it to her for her thirty-third birthday.
She looked around the tiny three-roomed apartment. The dishes were washed, the single ashtray on the bedroom dresser emptied, the bare floor of the tiny hall swept clean and scrubbed with soapy water. She had placed a small plastic vase of fresh asters on the old wooden table in the room’s center. In the hallway the walls were covered with sayings by Alexander Pope, Francis Bacon, Cyril Connolly and Oscar Wilde. He, uneasy in the midst of these, always went straight to the bedroom to remove his shoes, switch on the TV to Hindi movie videos and drink the hot tea she brought.
The clock in the living room broke her thoughts with its nursery-rhyme chime. She waited until it had sounded five times for the hour, then locked the door of the flat and walked to the stairs, thinking about the children she did not have to boast of or worry about, neither his nor anyone else’s. She didn’t miss them, did not feel an emptiness inside like other women. It was only when a year ago he started reminding her to take her birth control pills that a yearning had taken root inside her and she had asked, ‘Why can’t we have one? Your wife wouldn’t know, I’d bring it up on my own.’ But he was so shocked by her suggestion that his cigarette fell from his mouth and made a hole in her bedspread. They fought then, and he walked out cursing. But the thought of capturing him in a child continued to grow in her.
Taking the stairs down two at a time, she thought that she must find a more upscale apartment. Ram had been urging her to move for years, but the idea did not appeal to her until about a year ago. She wanted to be closer to him, closer to Lake Avenue and that other house. She tried to hide this parasitic side of her love for him. Some nights after they made love and he was snoring beside her, she turned towards him carefully so the bed wouldn’t creak and craned her neck until her ear almost touched his nose and then lay listening to his raspy breathing. After a while the other night sounds joined in, and she lay there looking at him and at the dark shapes of her cupboard and table, the flowers, his black work shoes and smelly nylon socks flung over the edge of the bed, the white pillow on which he lay, his chest rising and falling, unaware of her attention. Her eyes fixed him there beside her, within that moment, in the context of all these night things. And she felt so much in the moment and with him. However much the Face, twisted with the pain of her jealousy, badgered him with recrimination the next morning or wooed him to her bed the next night, It did not have him this night, not this night.
As she walked along the road away from her building she remembered their first meeting, back when she still thought of the clinic’s staff as her family, finding it easier to love the strangers she worked with than her career-oriented parents on the other side of the city. Then there he was:
in a crowded bus headed from City Market to the Cantonement area of Mayo Hall one hot afternoon eight years ago, a tall slim man with curly black hair and a ready smile getting up to offer her his seat with a bow. It was a charming gesture, from another generation, out of sync with his mischievous black eyes, and right then she knew she was headed to her first love affair.
He was five years younger than she was and in a few days would be engaged to be married, he told her on their third date. It made no difference to her. It took only a few nights together for her to see that they had nothing in common. But that didn’t matter either. He was like a heady drug. Reading and helping children get off the streets and into school had consumed her life before she met him. Then, to keep him, she was willing to give all that up; this decision, made from a place deep within herself, was ammunition to be used when the fighting began. But when he did marry it hurt badly, far more than she had expected, though she didn’t like to think of that now.
He had spoken some about the house, and her imagination had done the rest. It was small, with a wooden gate. He had painted both the house and the gate white a few months ago. A few square feet of lawn was all there was to the front yard. The grass was trimmed and bordered by red and white roses and white asters like the ones she’d put out on the table for him. Green curtains fluttered in the four front windows. The Face that Tara had only till now imagined, partly out of questions she put to him when he was almost asleep and his guard was down, was peering through the green curtains as if waiting for him to come home. Sometimes that Face was in the garden tending to the roses or leaning against the gate, waiting for him to come home. When he was with Tara, lines of anxiety creased that Face as it waited. Sometimes it lay on the pillow in their bedroom, tendrils of hair coming loose from the thick plait, the skin perspiring with passion. At such thoughts a burning sensation always rose in the pit of Tara’s stomach, and yet she also felt strangely aroused.
Back on the street a gentle lake-breeze brought scents of roasting peanuts, old jasmine flowers and green grass. She wound her way through a crowd of noisy children, harassed parents and people coming home from work. After ten minutes of walking, the crowd thinned out until there was only an old lady with a basket of mangoes balanced on her head walking ahead of her. Lake Avenue had broadened to embrace thick-trunked trees. This part of the city was much cleaner than her own, and the small roads branching off Lake Avenue were filled with two-story houses sitting snugly in the middle of neat gardens.
Then the roadway deteriorated into the familiar muddy byway just before the turning, and Tara suddenly felt an urge to hear his voice one more time. A row of tea stalls, small groceries and a public telephone booth stood just outside the path leading up to the lake. She stepped into the glass booth and dialed her own number. She heard two shrill rings on the line and imagined the sound filling her dark, empty apartment. On the third ring, he picked up.
‘Darling, it’s Tara.’
‘Where the hell are you?’
I'm near your house, she wanted to say. I'm going to see what your wife looks like.
‘I had…to go to the store,’ she stammered, wishing now she had not given into her impulse to call him. ‘I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.’
‘Are you mad? You’ve never kept me waiting like this. Where’s the store?’
‘Never mind. I’ll be right back.’ He had slapped her in public more than once for something more trifling than this.
‘What do you mean by this sort of behavior?’ he demanded, his voice rising as high as a woman’s. ‘Tell me where you are. I’m coming to pick you up.’
‘No!’ she said, confronting with amazement her dim reflection in the booth’s dusty glass. It was as if she had never before spoken the word.
‘No?! What do you mean, No?!’ he screamed.
‘I’d rather you don’t pick me up. I can walk back.’
She could feel his cold anger in the silence that followed. She had never dared to speak back to him when he was angry.
‘Suit yourself,’ he said finally in a low tone that immediately caused her to start trembling. Eight years together, she thought, as she removed the receiver from her ear, thinking of the millions of subtly crumbling relationships in this big city, the deliberate spites, the half-hidden sneers, the shadow-fights. She thought of her own parents locked in a silent struggle for power and the little jokes her father told guests about her mother’s weight when she went to the kitchen to make tea, and the way he would deliberately use a big English word that he knew she did not understand.
Suddenly, she heard Ram’s voice again and stared down in surprise at the receiver still in her hand. His voice was a sneer. ‘You know, at your age you won’t get someone else so easily. So you’d better watch your step. You’ve let yourself go, you know. And I’ll tell you something else: this apartment stinks to high heaven.’
As she listened, something fell away from her like old skin. For years she had harbored a fear that when the time came he would walk away from her relieved. But she’d been wrong. A surge of wonder at her own power made the blood rush to every part of her body. For the first time since their early days together she felt in control.
‘You’ll regret this…’ he was saying. ‘…Are you there? You must have got drunk with your stupid social worker friends…. Where are you?’
‘I’m not drunk,’ she said, barely paying any attention to what she was saying, speaking only to see what he would say next.
‘I’ll bet you are,’ he replied, his voice full of forced scorn. ‘You budi are the most insecure. All you want is to drink and party and roll around all the time.’
‘You’ve never spoken to me this way before.’
‘You never behaved like this! I told you, I hate bossy women. Don’t try it with me.’
‘I’m not trying anything.’
‘Don’t argue! Since when do you decide to go to the store when you’re ex- pecting me? I work hard all day.’
‘So do I,’ she said, watching the glass walls of the booth grow cloudy as her breath came faster and faster at her audacity.
‘Your social work is just an excuse for laziness. You should first help yourself before trying to rescue children from factory fires or brides who run away from their husbands because of a single beating.’
Outside, a translucent darkness was descending on the water, the swaying reeds, the tin rooftops of small shops, the wrinkled faces of fruit-sellers and their bamboo baskets. Lights were going on in nearby houses. She said nothing in reply to him, saw herself moving away from the booth and in her mind was already walking down the street, fast. There was the one thing left to be done.
‘I have to go,’ she said, gesturing to the man who was tapping on the glass that she was just finishing.
‘Tara, I’m warning you!’
She hung up. Her knees were shaking as she fumbled in her purse for two rupees for the phone box and handed it to the booth-keeper. As she walked rapidly away bits and pieces of old conversations reoccurred to her: how his parents had arranged his marriage and how his new bride arrived with a small suitcase, three new saris and a framed black-and-white photograph of her parents. His wife kept their house so clean you could spot a grain of rice on the bare floor--after that Tara made an effort to keep her own apartment better. But when she pressed him to tell her more about his marriage, he refused. ‘Don’t make me talk about that. She’s at home, and I’m here with you, and that’s all that matters.’
The turn off Lake Avenue was just ahead. She crossed the road and headed down the dirt sidestreet. From behind the tall trees on either side the houses peeped out at her, their windows giving nothing away except orange squares of light. Then she saw it: a two-storey white house at the end of the lane, smaller than the others but newer-looking because of the fresh white paint. She walked up to the house next to it and stood behind a tree. Like elements out of a fond old dream, she saw the green grass, roses and asters on both sides, the brown path winding its way from gate to front door. Ram had installed a screen door just the previous week because his wife had com- plained about mosquitoes. As she stood and saw it all for the first time in reality, some resilient part of her deep inner self sprang up to protect her from despair. A woman was singing somewhere either far away or very softly. Tara looked around, but there was nothing stirring except for the lake breeze playing with some twigs and dead leaves. The voice grew stronger and louder. Tara looked back towards the house, and through the clearing that led to the backyard she saw a woman's back bent over a basket of washing. As Tara watched, the woman straightened and reached up to hang a dripping towel on the clothesline. Then she bent down again to pick up more wash, still humming to herself.
Slowly, Tara began to notice other things. The woman was wearing a blue cotton sari with a plain white high-necked blouse. A dark patch of sweat had spread down the back of the blouse. Her hair was long and black like Tara’s but braided in a thick plait that fell all the way down to her buttocks. ‘She's taller than me,’ Tara thought with surprise. He hadn’t told her that. It was difficult to say for sure from this distance, but the woman's dark hair seemed to be streaked with gray.
It was a catchy tune the woman was humming, and it sounded familiar. Then Tara remembered it was one of the silly songs he hummed when they were lying together in bed. At this realization a memory rose up from an obscure part of her childhood: When she was almost three her mother gave her a large package wrapped in glossy red paper. ‘It’s for your birthday,’ her mother said. Tara unwrapped it immediately, although her birthday was still two weeks away, folding the shiny wrapping paper carefully to cover her school books with later. Beneath the wrapping was white tissue paper. This too she removed, impatiently now, until she saw the velvet coat beneath--a deep golden brown and softer than anything she had ever touched. She ran her hand over the velvet, then buried her nose in its softness.
Her mother hung the coat in a cupboard in the living room, and every morning Tara opened the cupboard doors to gaze at it. She couldn’t wait to put it on on the morning of her birthday. But, a few days before then, on the way back from the market with her mother she saw the same coat hanging outside in secondhand-store window next to a big hand-lettered sign: USED CLOTHES SALE, 40 PER CENT OFF ON WINTER COATS. She stood in the sun, looking in turn at the coat and then at the sign while her mother haggled nearby over the price of potatoes. She said nothing about what she had seen, but she never wore the coat. No one could understand why. Her father said she was spoilt. She could not explain to them that for her it was not her coat anymore.
As she stood standing now outside her lover’s house many years later, she felt a deep bitterness flow across the years from her childhood, making her feel physically light from her womb down. But her breast was burning as if she had just forced herself to run a great distance. A car passed her in a cloud of dust and then turned onto the main road. She put her hand to her nose to keep from sneezing. After the car disappeared the roaring sound it had made con- tinued to play in her ears.
She stood waiting for the woman to stop humming and turn around. But she merely went on hanging up the maddening clothes, her back to the road. The patch of sweat on the back of her blouse had widened, and some strands of her hair had come loose in the wind. She paused to tuck up the loose end of her sari around her waist. Suddenly, as if this simple act were the cause, Tara had a vision of Ram rubbing this woman’s back after her long day of washing and other household chores.
She took a step forward towards the gate. The dying light colored the wash on the line a pale purple, giving it a kind of quiet dignity possible only at twilight. The steady, persevering life of this woman suddenly seemed to Tara the only real one, the life people sought vainly in alcohol at the social workers’ club or in anonymous hotel rooms with strangers. Behind the woman the breeze tossed the curtains to one side. Tara caught a glimpse of a green chair with a pile of folded laundry on it.
When she almost reached the gate she stopped, and now inside her there seemed to be nothing at all, nothing left of her, not even flesh and bone. Only the roaring in her ears remained, the sound of a wounded beast that was distinct from her real self and uncomprehending of its pain. Hope, desire, jealousy, love, pity, all the emotions that kept one in constant motion were drained out of her. She opened her mouth to ask for directions to the lake. This was the moment she had been waiting for, the moment her fear had kept her from for so long: to confront that Face. To see those eyes that looked upon him every night and claimed him.
But no sound came from her. Broken, unrelated thoughts flashed through her brain: she must remember to wash her hair; her fingernails needed attention; there were millions of homeless people in this city of beautiful sunsets.
But even these thoughts lost any meaning as she turned away from the gate and walked back down the lane. At its end she looked at her wristwatch--half an hour since she had spoken to him. She tried to picture his face, the chiseled nose, curved mouth, the tousled hair and laughing eyes, but nothing came. When she reached the main road a stray dog ran up and began following her. She stopped at a vendor’s and bought some roasted peanuts for it. But when she offered them to the dog, he only sniffed once at them and turned away.
(Shireen Joanna is a 29-year old
journalist and writer of poetry and short fiction who is currently at work
on a novel. Based in Fairfax, Virginia, she believes in T.S. Eliot's creed
of identifying an 'objective correlative' for emotion and translating this
into pure art.)