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.
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.
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.