The Weight of Smoke, the Sacrifice of Snails

             She hears the click of the lighter through the phone. Into her ear comes Daniel’s inhale, the smoke settling in his lungs. In her mind, she sees the stars he lingers under, the only beautiful thing in his apartment complex, ceilings of cottage cheese, black cobwebs in stucco corners, an electric gate that smacks of detention.

             “You’re standing by the eucalyptus tree?”

             “Yes, how did you know? Beautiful night out. You should see the stars. Cheap clichés, every one of them, but my god, stunning.”

             Maybe she doesn’t hear the smoke, so much as she opens her own mouth and incense pours from lips that look younger than they are. Maybe his poisons taint her. His cigarette spectral in her lungs. His Manhattan stinging in her throat. But the philosopher’s words, when he wields them well, are like no other vintage of hemlock.

             She doesn’t ask. She never does. Are you smoking? It is evident, and although she has seen far ahead, knows where the paved world ends, still she does not question how he will walk there, if he will roll the leaf, tongue tacky on phyllo-fine paper, if it will be a lighter or match that sparks the smolder, or just a pack of Pall Mall’s bought at the store on the corner.

             “It’s not the cigarettes,” Daniel says. “That’s not why I got sick.”

             “No?”

             “No.”

             That is what he said two weeks ago. This week, “Bad news. They found a spot. On my lungs this time.”

             She winces. Full moons waterslide off her lashes, fat heavy droplets on her leg. She knows exactly what has been lost.

             “Biopsy in a few weeks. It’s probably just an infection.”

             Nothing she has ever shown him will mitigate his way of walking. This is how men are, she is told. “You cannot change us,” says John, a serial dater; three weeks, three months and it explodes every time. John has known her a few years and yet does not know her at all, never will. He cannot change. Neither can Daniel.

             But she will know, when Daniel rises, when he lifts. She will perceive what the others cannot, she will feel it bodily, his own body like a shoe that has grown too loose to hold the sole.

             “It’s the chemo,” he tells her. “Can’t taste a thing. Lost half my weight. I’m disappearing before my own eyes. Some kind of magic trick.” A mouth that used to lust for every earthly sensation, an appetite for the sky and all heavenly bodies, now suffers to eat a single hard-boiled egg.

             When Daniel’s light at last lifts, never having found what he most desired, when Daniel scatters like the sparks of a fire, a stop light red on the end of a Marlboro, she will know him by the warp and weft of a sky extinguished of all grace save this, his words.

             He says there is one thing he regrets. One thing he meant to keep. And though he found it a few times, can tell her the names, the rings that rolled away, glint of the sun in their curves, he can’t tell her where they went or if they ever made it home. He can’t say exactly why the band felt so tight on his finger, why he faltered.

             She listens. Inhale. Exhale. His smoke is on her lips. His illusions, his regret.

             “I can’t date younger women,” he says. “Well, date them, yes. But a relationship? No. It wouldn’t work. I mean, what side of the bed would she sleep on? What in the world would we talk about?” He says this at 3:01 a.m., a song of two insomniacs, three hours on the phone, words like firecrackers in Beijing, like balloons over Albuquerque. Ridiculous words. Delirious words. Absurd.

             “I assure you, there is one species of snail that was meant to die for the pleasure of man. And one species alone,” he says, 3:21 a.m. “The other snails are interlopers.”

             “What are they called, the special snails, the ones that taste good?”

             “The name slips my mind. But unlike other snails, they offer themselves up. It gives them sweetness, that tinge of sacrifice.”

             “Like Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire?”

             “Yes. There is a zen-ness to the snail.”

             “The snails I’ve had were deceivers, smelled good but tasted of pure rubber. If they died for man’s pleasure, they died in vain.”

             “Well, that is the dark magic of butter and garlic, they can make anything smell appealing. Even a garden snail.”

             “Are they alive when they’re thrown in the pan? Do they taste the butter and garlic as their last supper?”

             “Well, aren’t you sadistic.”

             “I’m vegetarian.”

             “So are snails.”

             This will go on for hours. Until dawn. She doesn’t answer the questions he posed, Socratic as they were. She doesn’t tell him that she sleeps on whatever side of the bed she falls on, that she has slept alone a life time, that it would mean everything to her, the world, to wake up next to a face she trusted. She has chosen paths with no maps, no streetlights, walked to the lip of the sea and further, never mind if ever she found her way home. But this, like the subtleties of the eclipsed moon, her shadowed, crescent smile, this is the mystery he will always seek and never see, though her rays fall a few feet away, though she observes him.

             When he calls again next, she does not answer. She knows what the news will be. The spot on the lung, a dot in an infinity of planets and galaxies and nebulae. That one little dot that the smoke gave to him, will take him away from her too, and he no more than a garden snail willingly prostrate to the cheap cliché of stars.

The Inescapable Weight of Insignificant Details

             Anton Chekhov once said that if you bring a gun onstage at the start of a play, it must go off before the curtain closes. Audiences will assign significance to the smallest of details; they will assume that if a prop or a character or an idea is introduced, it will end up playing a part in the climactic tying-up of the narrative, regardless of what the author intended.

             A gun, therefore, that is loaded in Act I, must be fired before the final line.

             That night, when James entered the house, he brought a gun with him. It didn’t have to be a physical weapon for them to sense the threat. He sat at the dinner table with the barrel on his knee, finger crooked at the metaphorical trigger, while the family forced down mashed potatoes and green beans and confrontation. No one brought up the subject that hung in the air, thick as fog, or the fact that an armed man was in their midst, ready to fire at the drop of a hat, or the drop of a word. He had showed up out of the blue that night, right in the middle of their meal, for a reason none of them could divine. No one knew when he would make his move—no one moved to stop him. Politeness snared their limbs and confined them to airy, over-casual conversation as they waited for the shot Chekhov had said was inevitable.

             Each of them handled it a different way. The father, that stoic bulwark of the family, entrusted with holding things together even when they are falling apart, eyed James from the opposite end of the table. He never quite made eye contact with his oldest son, only watched him warily, like an officer watching the brush where he suspects a grenade has been rigged. The mother kept standing and refilling everyone’s glasses or bringing out fresh baskets of bread. When the youngest spilled a few drops of juice, she leapt up, wadded napkin in hand, and blotted up the particles before they even had a chance to stain the tablecloth.

             The youngest, a little girl with ribbons in her hair, pressed the back of her spoon into her mashed potatoes, oblivious.

             The other two daughters, seated side by side, understood more. Susannah nervously tossed jokes into the center of table, trying harder even as they fell flatter. She smiled, her dimples popping on each side of her face, but the look in her eyes was the scared look of a rabbit caught out of its hole. Occasionally, she would glance at her mother. But she would be busy complimenting the youngest on her braids or handing their father more bread without meeting his eyes.

             The middle sister, Teri, sat with her hands folded. She barely ate. Her eyes—dark, deep, and painfully big—shimmered with saltwater. The looks she cast her family were helpless, hopeless, lost. Of all the family, she was the only one who sometimes looked at James.

             He sat at the foot of the table. The young man ate steadily, like a machine. One of his hands was always beneath the table, resting in his lap. He had draped a napkin over his knees, just like his mother had taught him when he was a little boy. He hadn’t been so polite in years.

             On James’s right stood an empty chair. Whenever one of the family averted their eyes from him, their gaze inevitably fell on that vacant seat.

             “Any word from your boss?” the mother asked James. Instead of looking at him, she stared at a green bean that had fallen off someone’s plate, onto the tablecloth; it lay there like a little green log, floating alone in a sea of white cloth.

             James cleared his throat. “No,” he said. The table waited with bated breath while he raised a glass to his lips, took a sip of water, and set it back down.

             “I don’t see why they wouldn’t hire you back,” the father said with a little cough. “I mean, after the incident was…cleared up.”

             James gave a noncommittal shrug. To them, it seemed he slid a hand up the barrel of the gun, reminding them he had ammunition in his corner. To tread carefully.

             “It was a misunderstanding,” Susannah chimed in breathlessly. “Your friends were the ones selling, not you…I’m convinced they’ll change their minds, just as soon as they deal with all the paperwork and official bother… I know it.”

             “She’s right, son,” the mother told James. “Just let things cool down.”

             “I didn’t intend to do otherwise,” James replied in an impassive tone. He shrugged again. “Not that it really matters.”

             An awkward silence descended over the table, broken by the youngest giving a chortle and banging her spoon against her plate.

             “Now now, don’t do that love,” the mother shushed. She reached out and took the spoon away.

             James watched the intrigue, his face closed as a shuttered window. That one hand still rested in his lap.

             The mother set the offending spoon aside, and as usual, her eyes flicked for one second to that empty chair. She couldn’t help herself. If she had thought about it, probably she would have made an effort to avoid looking there. Maybe seeing that effort would have comforted James and made him think that perhaps she had forgiven him. But unconscious gestures reveal the most.

             “It’s the anniversary tonight,” James said.

             The whole table froze. In one motion, he had both cocked the gun and pulled the trigger, with an abruptness even they had not expected. For the first time every eye turned to James. Only the little girl kept playing with her fork.

             “I know,” James told them. “I remembered.”

             He turned to the mother, a pained crease between his brows.

             “You have a candle, don’t you?” he whispered. “You always light it at 6 o’clock tonight. Where is it? Bring it out.”

             “James…” Her eyes were darting now, quick as the candle flames. “I didn’t want to—”

             “Bring it out.

             Wordlessly, the mother got up and took a candle from the mantlepiece. It was a thick, off-white cylinder of wax, with a hole in the center where the wick had melted down. Each year it got fractionally deeper as they lit it, for ten minutes, and then blew it out. The ten minutes was specific—just like the date, just like the time of six o’clock. It all had a significance.

             The mother set the candle, with its metal filigree cage, in the center of the table.

             The others, knowing the ritual, sat up a little straighter. James remained motionless in his seat; he stared at the wick as his mother put a match to it. The tip of waxy string spat and then burned, exuding a little bubble of warm light.

             “Start counting,” James said. He stared into the candle flame, like a man in a trance. The tongues of flame flickered just slightly in the pupils of his eyes.

             “1, 2, 3, 4, 5,” the youngest cried at the top of her lungs. Susannah hushed her in a panic, letting loose a nervous giggle. Teri just stared at her youngest sister like a theatregoer judging an ill-placed moment of comic relief—jarring, off-key. The mother and father, for once, barely noticed their youngest’s antics. Their eyes were riveted on James, like James’s eyes were riveted on the candle.

             “I counted too,” James whispered. His voice was so low, he might have been talking to himself. “I counted every second it took the ambulance to arrive, every minute they worked on him… until nothing could be done.”

             Passed away at six hours, ten minutes, on January the 16th. Blunt force trauma to the head, crushed lung, multiple abdominal injuries. Passenger side of car completely crushed.

             “The paramedics said you did exactly what you were supposed to,” the mother told him. “Calling 911, staying with him—” Her voice was forcibly positive, chipper almost. Everyone tried to ignore how obvious it was how hard she was trying. On the wall, the dining room clock ticked obtrusively, reminding the family that it was still keeping time, still counting off the seconds, the minutes…

             “Not that night.” James shook his head, back and forth. “One night, I mess up. One night, and nothing’s ever the same afterwards. Nothing.”

             Driver unharmed. No witnesses to the collision.

             Tick, tick, tick. The little girl, subjected to silence, hummed her ABCs in a sing-song rhythm.

             The mother opened her mouth to contradict James. But no rebuttal came forth. She looked over at the father, her husband. But his jaw was tight, his eyes at once cold and teary. He held the place of defense, but he could not muster a response.

             “We don’t blame you,” Susannah said as she fussed with her napkin. “You know that, don’t you? Of course, nothing’s the same, how could it be? But you’re still… our brother… and we still… love you just the same…”

             Her normally fluid prattle trailed off, like the trickle of water from a drying spring. James was staring at her, and in the face of his pained, accusing eyes, she couldn’t continue to invent excuses. No amount of words could make up for the dinners he had not been invited to, the memories he had not shared, the days their family had spent apart.

             Most of it was James’s own fault, the parents had said. Drinking had been the start of it all, and when he started drinking every night, and carousing with his friends, and losing job after job, it just wasn’t a good influence for Susannah, and Teri, and the little one.

             But other times it had been too hard for the mother to see James without crying. Or for the father to take him fishing alone when his two sons had been inseparable. The girls didn’t know how to act; it wasn’t that they were angry, only broken, and confused—and deep down a little scared. If James could be so careless with their brother’s life, could they really ever trust him with theirs? Even a little bit? Was it worth the risk?

             As the years crept on, James had found friends with substances that made him forget, both the good and the bad. He had lost more jobs, and more girlfriends. He had briefly moved across country, before coming back and living in a rundown apartment with leaks in the plumbing. The family had watched it all from the safety of their home. Eventually it had gotten to the point where the parents had warned the girls to be careful if they saw James on the street. Careful, of their own brother. Their relationships had grown ever more fragile, until they interacted with James like one might with a neighbor’s dog—wary, polite, watchful. Why he had shown up tonight, unexpected and unannounced, was a disturbing mystery they were still trying to unravel.

             James saw all that as he looked into Susannah’s eyes, and then Teri’s, and finally his parents. A sad smile played over his face, like the play of the candlelight on the tablecloth.

             “You should blame me,” he said quietly.

             The second hand on the clock completed its tenth circuit. With one finger, James reached and snuffed the candle out. To him, it was just like he had snuffed out that life, almost five years ago now. It seemed fitting.

             He stood up from the table with the solemn regality of a minister at a funeral.

             “But we haven’t had dessert yet,” the mother stammered.

             “Dessert?” James regarded her with a sad, disappointed look. “Tonight?”

             At that, the mother could only look down at the smudges on her plate.

             “Yay, dessert!” the youngest shrieked and banged her fork.

             Hissing, Susannah darted a hand across the table and snatched her last remaining utensil away. Teri didn’t budge. She was staring at James, and the tears that had been lingering in her eyes now slipped free down her cheeks.

             James still held his napkin, draped over his right hand like a shroud. It seemed such an insignificant thing, at the time, why he still held his napkin after getting up from the table. But Teri would remember that when she remembered nothing else. If only she had realized the importance of the gesture sooner. Before nothing could be done.

             James walked around the table, as if heading for the door, and then stopped a few feet behind the little girl’s chair. He turned back.

             His audience, tense, uncertain, watched him on the edge of their seats. Though they didn’t want to admit it, they wanted him to leave, hurry out that door, disappear into the night… carry with him the threat he had brought into the room.

             “I lost my place here a long time ago,” James whispered. “The moment I took him in that car with me. You can’t ever forgive me. I wouldn’t either.”

             He looked around the table one more time. He spared a moment to watch the smoke curling from the burnt-out candle. He reached out one hand, the hand without the napkin, and touched the youngest on the shoulder, like one might touch the hand of a priest.

             “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice now barely a breath. “But I couldn’t do this alone.”

             He stepped back, and the napkin crumpled to the ground. The unshrouded hand came up.

             Maybe they had sensed it as soon as James walked into the house; maybe that was why, in their minds, they compared the tension to a loaded gun without even knowing why. Assigning, as humans always do, some metaphysical symbolism to details that seem insignificant: like the way he had rested his hand in his lap, or how he had spread his napkin over his knees.

             But they had made the connections too late. The signs had been there all along, but when everything came together, it still took them by surprise.

             The gun that James had brought onstage loosed its fated shot at last.

Hot roti

It is because he was from the hills. Further up in Himachal, his village was in the Chamba valley.  He said because he belonged to the hills, his skin broke into a rash through the peak summer months of May and June in Jodhpur, when the sun rose high by seven in the morning and did not budge from its pedestal until very late into the evening. When Kalu rode home, after stacking away the files in the shelves and closing the administrative building of the High Court, he went straight home to the refrigerator to pull out the leftover lunch. His wife sat on the floor in the next room, watching her evening soap with rapt attention. The other women in the official quarters also watched TV but Kalu would often notice someone knitting a child’s monkey cap or shelling beans in tandem, just something to do so they were useful, even as they entertained themselves. Women were usually kept so busy, TV did not deserve their undivided attention. He warmed the food on the gas stove, helped himself to the stale roti from the box, and sat alone to eat. The children would pass by him, nosed into the mobile phone or languishing before the TV set like dull insistent moths bent upon ruination. 


Rarely did he feel the attention of any of them upon him. He was providing for them, surely the least any of them could do was to fetch him a glass of water. Self pity creeped into the water of his conscience and colored it irrevocably dark. After many years in a marriage that was as uneasy and uncomfortable as his Judicial Court uniform in the prickling summers, the weave of the synthetic fiber chafing against his skin causing his rashes to flare up, he knew he should not expect much. He counseled himself, even as he felt deep outrage at his wife and his children’s callousness.  His work uniform at least looked impressive in its shiny whiteness and he took pride in it. His marriage did not impress others or himself at all, however. His marriage looked like a white lie. One may put up with a shoe that bites, a starched collar that scrapes the back of the neck, a pair of Presley trousers too snug on the crotch– all for the sake of improving one’s public appearance — but when the cause of aesthetics remains unserved, there isn’t sufficient reason to go on suffering. 


He swiped his finger across the congealing surface of the daal in his bowl and pushed away the thought. It was unbearable to have to think the same thoughts every day. He was considered fortunate amongst his village friends. Kalu was not above seventeen when he moved out of the village to begin work as a domestic helper in a large family in Bhopal. He was placed through the recommendation of a cousin who told him, “Work hard for them and you will go ahead in your life.” Working hard was a not a problem for Kalu. He had seen much adversity early in life, such dire deprivation and neglect that he could squeeze himself into a ball if it helped to roll faster downhill. Then from one household to the next – sweeping, mopping, washing, cleaning, late night cooking, early morning wiping – everyone needed a different job done at the assigned hour, and when you worked full-time as household help, you worked round the clock to keep the wheels running. He knew he had to stay calm and go on, else that government job was never going to be his. Every village boy dreamt of an appointment as a Class IV employee, but most never got there. Kalu had left home, moved to Rajasthan with the hope of more government sector vacancies, where his years of service in households, massaging the feet of family heads, carrying trays of food at odd hours of day and night, had earned him dividends in building a bridge to another family of privilege and power that would land him that government job he ached for. No matter what it took, Kalu was not going to hang up his boots. 


It was soon after his twenty fourth birthday. Well, strictly speaking, no one knew his birth date as such, but his mother said he was born on the new moon of the fifth month by the lunar calendar. When the need to fill the applicant’s date of birth column for the newly announced vacancies in the High Court came up, he filled in 7-5-1975 without much ponderance. There was a lyric beauty to the figures. He liked that. Then the appointment letter came, the confirmation, and he was married off to the woman his parents had chosen. Now he lived with the woman of his parent’s choosing. He couldn’t be thinking endlessly, he chided himself, walking to the house where he worked evenings as a part time cleaner.  He hummed and softly sang a movie song as he strolled ahead, swinging his arms to wrest out the dredges of ugly repentance. 


It was nearly eight at night and he noticed a light bulb flickering at the doorway of the last residential quarter in the same row as his own. It had been vacant until yesterday, he thought to himself: who is here today, he wondered?  The next evening he noticed the light bulb aglow, winking from the end of the line of row houses and dropped his pace instinctively, his singing dropping a pitch in alignment, as he surveyed the first signs of settlement around the house – a clothes line with a saree blouse and a man’s vest, There was a woman’s silhouette in the shadows of the window, going about busily. He heard her call out from behind him, “Won’t you sing that line again – louder now!” she coaxed merrily, stretching out her neck from the window frame. Kalu had lived in the hills and then in different cities of the plains, but not once had a woman accosted him in such a brazen manner. He paused and turned around, trying to focus more sharply at her round face dotted with a large bindi on her high forehead. Now that she was standing under that lone bulb, smiling wide, acutely aware of his sombre eye on her, he was baffled. He could not resist the call. Besides, there was a comeliness to her plump figure that intrigued him. His brows flickered with concentration and his eyes shut close as he intoned the line again– as close as he could be to his memory of the notes — but before he could open his eyes, she was singing with him, her notes like the plump wild apricots that fell off the tress in Chamba valley, his mountain village’s crisp thin air, catching him unawares, swollen with the sweetness of a mountain summer, ripe with the joy of a surprise. He was struck by her effortless grace in singing: once he found out her name, “Madhu,” he found himself rolling it in his mouth through the day. He couldn’t say it aloud. He knew he was married and with children. He scolded himself. Then again, like a lozenge that refuses to melt away in one’s mouth, her name reappeared like an apparition in his silent mouth.  


Kalu’s wife’s mouth curled with displeasure at the sight of her husband – there had always been something rakish about him, his saunter which had pleased her endlessly when she saw him first, his dapper court uniform that she neglected to wash and iron anymore, his hairline receding near the temples but his moustache, thick even now. She found him singing gayly all over the house. He would play the karaoke on his phone and sing along like a bird in heat. He smiled as though he had discovered a gold pot. Why, he hadn’t looked so happy even when he last got promoted? She knew how much the cable television cost every month, the price of the salwar- kurti she had chosen for herself, the phone recharge value for a prepaid connection and many more things. She couldn’t fathom the cost of happiness of this loony smiling man. She told Kalu the house needed a refill of flour as she slammed into the next room.


Kalu wasn’t certain how he was going to make it, but he had committed to join Madhu’s music class. She was a member of the group where the teacher, Masterji, was a  man who taught the basics of Hindustani classical music. She ensured that Kalu didn’t need to pay the fee. For the past many years, Madhu had been singing at weddings, small neighborhood gatherings, at the officer’s Mess parties with the group members playing the keyboard, table and Masterji on the harmonium. Within the span of a few lessons, Kalu realized the music group had its own pecking order and Madhu was no less a trusted lieutenant of Masterji. 


When Kalu drove his motorbike toward home, he was habituated to park a few houses before his own so his  vehicle rested under a tree shade until it was time to ride again. Lately though, he entered the colony from the second gate and parked strategically between their homes. As he parked this evening, he saw Tawar Singh, his neighbor from two houses away, walk toward him eagerly. “Ay Kalu, you’ve become a big man; we see you go and come you never forget your way and come to meet me. You have put on some weight; have you been promoted again? I never got any sweetmeat from you so don’t hide now…..” Tawar Singh could chatter. Kalu kicked the stand in place and snapped his fingers around the key. He admired Tawar’s self-worth, in that one rarely needed to encourage him to play his news bulletin. Tawar wasn’t as much a buffoon as you’d guess him to be on the first meeting. He brought useful information quite often – last week Tawar had sounded him about a truck parked near the south gate to sell onions at half the market rate. Tawar came grinning, his oily face a landscape of excited humor. Tawar continued unspooling the thread of his chatter, “You saw that Bengali singing woman in the last house…her husband works in a steel factory…no children yet…what she sings all day…I wonder…when her husband looks like her uncle….she wants a job…she has been asking around…I told her she could try…” Tawar spun his unpunctuated sentences and kept busy with his own garrulous self, indifferent to Kalu’s annoyance at the description of Madhu as the “singing woman.” 


How easy to label a woman and this tendency to insinuate that a woman singing, by herself particularly, was inferior to an unsinging one. He wrestled with this misshapen notion as he jiggled the motorbike key around his index finger. Tawar wouldn’t follow him beyond a furlong, as Kalu’s wife had ensured no one came seeking the solace of a cup of tea to their house. Kalu knew though, that apart from the cup of tea, she avoided letting anyone in so they wouldn’t see her unswept floors, the disregard with which she kept her home. Drop it, he scolded himself, as he gripped the door handle ajar. Madhu was conveniently situated next door. In a few months, Kalu was playing the harmonium well enough to perform at forgiving home parties. The patrons didn’t pay handsomely, but the host would feed them well and occasionally a beer would be served with the meal. Twice, Madhu had sat alongside him on a makeshift wooden stage, the run down slats covered with white sheets, under the blazing stage lights to sing romantic duets from Hindi films. After the shows they would return together, Madhu riding pillion on the motorbike with him. They would linger near the tree grove a few feet from her house, knowing the late hour, the crickets chirping a rhythmic reminder of time passing by. Kalu leaned against the motorbike, looking at her toes just a few feet from him, a silver toe ring circled the second toe, her toes stubby plump insects with pink nail-paint heads. He thought of the color of the nail paint and its luminescent glow in the dark. Would other insects be attracted to her too? Her glowing pink toes, her big red bindi, the round outline of her face, the small circles of gold earrings on her lobes. Her saree this evening was an ochre with a red border, but he noticed now that the thick red border was also jampacked with row upon even row of red orbs in a pattern. He wanted her to stay, so he began telling her about a childhood incident when his mother and father had to go visit his mother’s family, leaving behind his brother and himself in the care of his father’s parents who lived a little way from their home. 


His mother never really got along very well with her in -laws and so the children, a nine year-old Kalu and his five year old brother, had never spent the night in anyone else’s house. Both the brothers were told to eat and sleep with the grandparents. The brothers picked their way up and down the hills, they brought pails of water to fill the clay pots of the grandparents. They played with the few wooden toys they had brought along but they helped sweep the floor. Kalu himself, conscious of this formal stay, took care to wash his own and his brother’s clothes. The grandmother was a hard woman who threw the flaky millet roti on their plates and looked at them with small dark eyes. 


He remembered that all three nights: his grandfather slept on the cold floor so that the young children could sleep on the only cot of the house. Not that the cold mattered to them then, said Kalu, but when he lay down on the cot with his brother beside him, he could look down at his grandfather right below and not feel scared of the dark room or be swallowed by the unfamiliar house. His grandfather felt like a relative, a close friend at once. Their grandfather took them in the surrounding hills and spoke about his ancestors with unheard of names. How one forefather served as a pharmacologist and could turn the poison of arsenic into a medicine by soaking a tracer amount in sheep milk over six days and nights. The government school did not teach them these things. No one else had treated Kalu with as much attention until then. He was his younger brother’s constant companion, his parents made it obvious he was the responsible, older son,  but his grandfather spoke to him of the hills and where the secret brooks were, of the history of his family and the hope that he would make a mark upon the world too. His grandfather, made him know that he wasn’t just another person born in an ordinary family but that he was one in a long line of hill people, with mystical knowings of the Chamba river, its pebble banks and the wonderous trees and plants in it.  


His parents returned from their trip but from then on Kalu stayed with his grandparents every Friday and Saturday night. He would arrive with his brother, clean and sweep the house, polish the metal utensils with wood ash, fill the water pots and spend the evenings talking late into the night with the grandfather, the grandfather insisting as always that the children sleep on the cot. Before they left for the parent’s house on Sunday morning, his grandfather would buy them hard orange lozenges, a sweet treat from the many glass jars with green metal caps that sat in a row on the shop counter. It would be roasted gram flour, laddoos, or white cookies speckled with cardamom, and sometimes even sesame-coated stickjaws. The treat was always a souvenir of unexpressed joy for the company of the boys as well as an invitation for the following week. Madhu sat down on a stone log and heard him with the patience only a woman in love could hold. Then she asked, “Did your grandfather take you in his arms when you came to see him?”


“No, I don’t think so. He’d smile and stand watching us from afar and when we came forward to him to touch his feet in greeting, he’d just pat our heads and cheeks. That’s all.” And so it became a ritual between them. When they wrapped up a live performance and came home together, riding on his motorbike, Kalu and Madhu would stand by the grove of the trees, in shamanic remembrance of their childhood, a wide- eyed reverie of their future, of things gone by. In this desert city, a foreign land to them, they listened to each other, of life in the hills, of how it was to live by a river and hunt food, and not have to buy it. She would tell him about her childhood in the far eastern Bengal, the many fruit trees and how endless afternoons were spent chewing the creamy, sticky sweetness of mammoth jackfruits. A pool of cousins and friends would collectively work to unload the ripe giant fruit and make an expedition of it. How plentiful food was, how raucous was the rain. He recalled to his mind long forgotten experiences, of the goat kid who became his uninvited pet, the school friend who fed him millet cakes. It was an equal exchange and she asked as many questions as the folds in the stories he told. 

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The sharing of childhood stories was a kosher context for a married woman and a married man to converse under a tree on unbearable evenings that they might have justified to one another. Did this exchange of their years of innocence lead to some not-so-innocent fantasies? Perhaps he allowed his hand to rest on hers for a moment longer than needed when he dropped her groceries? Maybe she didn’t lift her sari pallu quickly enough, restoring it to the loop of her left shoulder, just so his eyes could linger longer on the concave flesh of her twin breasts? Those mild flirtations that each of them had been deprived of in their bursting youth, came oozing out of their skins now, relieving them of any more regret. 


Strangely, it wasn’t the conversations that Madhu and Kalu shared with one another that gave them the strength to become lovers. It was in their singing in class as part of a group and to audiences small and large that they began to see each other as a couple. People would clap for them when they performed on stage, and in that passing moment, as they stood at arm’s length from one another, they experienced a solidarity of purpose. They’d sing together, arranging their voices to dance together, seamlessly moving from one to the other, and in some time, she found it was just as effortless to hold him against her and allow for mutual pleasure. When they sang a duet in public so flawlessly, how could their private coupling be flawed? For if you sang songs of love and romance with all your heart, diligently practicing the “togetherness,”– matching your notes to complement one another — how could they be asked to remain inhumanely aloof to each other’s flesh and bones? 


In Kalu’s village, where marriages were sanctified by the panchayat and thereby all dissolutions were also determined by the same body of collective morality, how was Kalu to convince a group of hoary men that his wife from the village made him feel unloved and uncared for? If love is the essence of marriage, then why should the extinction of love be not reason enough to break away from the rigor of it?  It is to my home that Kalu came in the evenings to help with the cleaning and upkeep. We have known him for close to two decades, for just as long as I have lived in this house with my in-laws and husband and by now I can say with some confidence that I gauge Kalu’s mood from the way he hums as he sweeps the floor. He walks in gets straight to work, silently moving through the space that is as familiar to him as any. Last week, when I was helping him move some furniture from one room to another, both of us heaving under the weight of the old dressing table, gripping its underside and warning one another of the edges and corners that could be chipped, it crossed my mind that both Kalu and I were getting older. We weren’t anymore the young souls who had come to be introduced as I was being formally let into the house of marriage. He was my mother in law’s man of first choice for accomplishing all the fine mending and cleaning of the house. Lately she complains that Kalu is too exhausted to ever do anything beyond his routine jobs. It’s my guess that Kalu wants to get away from all his assigned duties he has adeptly maneuvered for the better part of his life. Not the least being his marriage. 


As Kalu and I gently lower the dressing table to the ground, he sits down on the floor for a moment and we are both at the same level. He doesn’t look up from the mosaic floor, and I notice he is unable to squat as easily as could until a few years back. All that Kalu says to me with the air of fatigued resignation is that there comes a time when a man is tired to his bones and all he wants is to be able to eat hot roti when he comes home. Fresh roti. 


Glossary

Bindi – the circular dot usually in red color put on a woman’s forehead which is often also       

interpreted as a sign of matrimony.

Daal-cooked pulses seasoned with mustard cumin etc. which form a staple in an Indian meal.

Laddoo-a sweet that is shaped into a sphere and could be made of a variety of ingredients 

using wheat, gram flour, semolina or such other grain as a base and a variety of additives 

including raisins and other dried fruits and nuts.  

Pallu- the loose end of a sari that is anchored on a woman’s shoulder and flows freely along 

the length of the body on one side. 

Panchayat- a selection of people elected from amongst the populace at the village/district level who collectively act as leaders for the entire population and take various social, financial and judicial decisions. 

Roti- unleavened flatbread that is made from dough of a grain and forms a staple in many Indian homes.

NOVUS Literary and Arts Journal
Lebanon, TN