|Jan/Feb 2010 Fiction|
We were to go by road this time.
"I don't think I will get train tickets," Amit said.
No, of course not—he wouldn't get train tickets. It was nearly Christmas and we were late in making our decision to travel. After hesitating for over two months over: whether we should go; will my mother not be annoyed with our visit; will his father not want to see us in Bombay; could Amit really afford to take a day off. As usual.
I was online, chatting with my sister. She was complaining about the cold weather in London. Amit continued to explain—his workload was too much and he couldn't find the time.
"I understand—you didn't get tickets," I said as I typed: I can't believe he didn't get them.
My sister replied: You married him.
Amit was playing with his tie as he watched Rahul Dravid fidget about the crease.
"Can't you sit down and watch that crap?" My voice came out harsher than it should have. It startled him—he grimaced, apologized and sat down, still fidgeting with his tie. His shoulders slumped and he looked old. Older than thirty. His once soft and thick black hair was thinning. As was mine—our hair would fall on the floor every morning. His short strands and longer ones from my head. The maid would complain as she swept the floor every evening. Akka, she would say, do something about it.
My sister was whining on. I interrupted her:
He's watching the bloody cricket match.
Again: You married him.
We ordered dinner that night from the Hyderabadi Biriyani Palace. I removed chicken from the biriyani and ate the rice alone. Amit hesitated between eating the chicken or keeping it aside. He eventually gave up the struggle and ate the meat, tearing it clean off the bone and meticulously putting the naked violet bones on a plate by his side.
I finished my dinner quicker and went to the bedroom to pack my bag for the trip.
I folded the printed cotton tunic we had bought on a trip to Jodhpur. I had a job then, and a healthy bank account. The guards at the Umaid Bhavan Palace had smiled at us as we walked around that well groomed garden. The sky was grey and threatening to rain. We ate lunch in a wood panelled dining room at the railway station where service was slow and time went by a few beats slower than elsewhere. I remember the door had white drapes which ballooned in the breeze.
Now, in Bangalore, winter had settled in. The sharp cold wind bit into the flesh, drilling its way in to your bones. Flights were delayed at the airport because of thick fog in the mornings. Amit would come back home, cold nosed and stiff from his two hour bike ride from work, but also smelling of sweat that had moistened his hair under a snug helmet.
He had taken a shower after the biriyani dinner and was sitting on the windowsill. "You'll get another job."
"Don't you want to watch the game, Amit?"
He trotted out, closing the door behind him quietly. I lay back on the bed. The drive to Thrissur would take eight hours. Nine, maybe. Last August father had driven us there. Two months after the marriage, a month before his death.
Now Amit would drive. Drive like he talked. Hesitant, unsure, timid—shy about hitting the horn and giving way to every highway bully.
My mother hadn't sounded thrilled when I had called her earlier in the week.
"Why do you want to come here?" she asked.
"I need some time away from this place."
"Go to Bombay then."
"I need to see the house, amma."
Amma was not happy. She said she would rather be alone. She didn't want the extra burden of guests. Not now. How could we be so selfish?
She hung up the phone eventually. I heard three beeps and then the buzzing tone. I couldn't keep the receiver down. The maid rang the bell. She kept ringing it. She went away, and I could hear her arguing with the watchman downstairs. Or was she flirting? I never could tell—her tone was aggressive, her laugh, coquettish.
We'd told the maid that we'd be away for a week, called the newsagents and asked them not to deliver the newspaper and removed the bag for the milk from the door. All we needed to do was get in the car and go. I brushed my teeth, counted out underwear for each day of the week and threw out old vegetables that had stuck to the bottom of the crisper bin in the fridge. The house had been purged of the dead and the rotting and I could sleep now.
Amit came to bed after watching the match. He mumbled something. We slept with a furrow in the bedclothes separating us. We didn't touch, we didn't hug. We had our own blankets, and our own lamps. He never read anything though—just browsed the web in the dark on his phone, whose light filled the dark room with a green undersea glow. I fell asleep dreaming of undulating anemones.
The next morning, we got up at five o'clock and took turns to use the bathroom. We drank strong tea and ate arrowroot biscuits. At six, just as the sky turned a pale rosy pink, we loaded our bags into the car and got in. Amit reversed the car seven times before finally straightening it out and we moved forward. It was progress.
"I have planned the whole thing. We will have breakfast at the Adyar Ananda Bhavan near Toppur."
"We can have lunch at Valayar."
We drove through the waking city. The vegetable vendors were rolling their carts filled with tomatoes and greens up the roads. The canals reeked now, early in the morning. Men stood on the edges and peed into them and the sulfurous smell floated up from sluggish water flowing to an unseen lake. On the Inner Ring Road, the fog was lifting slowly over the army grounds.
The car windows were rolled down. Amit, smelling of cologne and fabric softener, hummed a tune. The hurtling city buses were filled with sleepy cleaners and peons, the larks of corporate India. We stopped at a signal, next to a bus carrying my former employer's staff to their glass temples where they would hook up with their tired colleagues in Charlotte and Fresno. Most were reading the Times of India, one was sleeping with his head on the bus window, banged awake every time the vehicle jumped up and over a speed bump. His ID tag chain was visible above his collar. My left hand reached to feel for my own tag and it grasped air. No card slapping my stomach, no smelly string around my neck. It wasn't there. I wasn't up in the bus either, but down in our car. The bus turned left and we went straight on, through the yuppie techie colonies of Koramangala. New restaurants had opened up in the month since I had been here. The expensive Italian place, warm with strategically lit alcoves in the evening, was now a white curtained, pokey little box. The public toilet not far from it was being washed. The newspaper vendor had his dailies spread out in front of him, and next to him the man with the tall steel dispenser filled with hot tea and jar of biscuits was setting up for the start of another day.
At Madiwala vegetable market the vendors had got out their piles of onions, tomatoes and cauliflower. Tomatoes were like a flood in this city. Oblong orange-red fruit piled up on carts, in the backs of trucks and across pavements. Lost oxen and cows surrounded the vendors hopefully but all they got were mouldy spinach leaves.
"Do you want to buy some vegetables?" asked Amit.
"No—why should we?"
"Your mother keeps complaining about the lack of vegetables there."
"Amma just enjoys complaining. I don't think we should buy her a cabbage."
"It would be nice –"
Fruit. On that journey in August, there were custard-apples everywhere. He and amma bought a sack full of them from a woman near Bhavani. She was carrying it on her head, having just plucked the fruits along with her husband. We paid a hundred and thirty rupees for it. For weeks the house in Thrissur and our apartment in Bangalore was filled with the sugary sweet scent. Neighbours ate them, and cousins. The fridge was filled with them.
"No, Amit. No fruit. Let's just drive."
We turn east onto Hosur Road with its great hulking flyover that has been under construction for the past five years and was a familiar eyesore on my daily commute to work. Seeing it now, I felt that familiar, sickening pressure in my stomach. Seven o' clock—my bag would be at my side, the iPod would play Smokey Robinson (I listened to The Tracks of My Tears ten times on one ride) and my Tupperware lunch box with the rotis, beans poriyal and dry amla pickles would be warm against my thigh. And my breath would be short, my fingers would curl thinking of switching on the computer and reading emails sent the previous evening. And the giant concrete columns of the flyover would come and go, quick, slow, as the bus negotiated the different levels of the road amid the Aishwarya Rai and birds of paradise buses going to Tamil Nadu. The same buses that careened past our car right now. One had a green waterfall painted on the side and "Heaven is here" written in pink italics.
The same bus had come close to hitting ours on that last ride to work. Its driver that day, a stout dark man with a moustache and wearing a striped t-shirt under his khaki jacket had yelled at us. I could see his face as his bus' nose almost hit us on the side where I sat. He had the vermillion and sandalwood paste marks on his forehead, smeared there lovingly by himself or his wife. A small bronze Ganesh was taped on to the visor above the windshield. And he spewed curses in Tamil as our bus swept past. My shoulders, tightened for impact, slackened.
Hosur Road was Bangalore of the present in microcosm. The old vineyards and fields had been partitioned and sold off by squabbling families to the highest bidders. IT parks with manicured lawns and buildings with glass facades and Ionic columns—to give a classical touch—alternated with upmarket apartment building developments, run down restaurants, and three floor tenements. The violence of modern development was painfully obvious. Buildings abutted the road that looked as though a mad carpenter had sawed off their fronts. They stood, gaping maws which once housed lodges, cafeterias and hardware stores. Now there were film posters tacked on to the walls and telephone numbers of real estate agents painted on. Some had tried half hearted attempts at rebuilding—beams weakened by the municipal corporation's demolition crews were being reinforced and piles of brick and metal sat in corners.
The ghosts of victims of a different kind of violence haunted this road too. In some of the not infrequent Cauvery water riots, buses from Tamil Nadu were burned here. No memorials existed for them though. They were forgotten, their memories brushed away by the cleaning crews who took away the charred metal skeletons of incinerated buses the morning after.
"What are you thinking?" Amit asked. We were at Bomanahalli junction, a mad crush of cars coming in four, five, six directions and some just rotating on the spot. Fumes darkened the air and nimble men and women hopped on and off buses and on to the medians where they walked, in danger of being smashed by speeding heavy vehicles. Here, in Bomanahalli, they manufacture among other things, mineral water and Coorg honey. Amma had once taken a bottle of Coorg honey and squinted hard at the label. "It's made here. In Bomanahalli—why call it Coorg honey?"
Amit, helpful eager to please, and maybe just a little eager to impress his new mother-in-law, said, "No Amma—it's Coorg honey—they must be bottling it at Bomanahalli."
When we had passed through here along with my father on that last road trip, Amma had laughed. "Of course Amit, this is Coorg."
Gayatri was from Coorg. She had sat at the other side of the desk, embarrassed and apologetic on that September day. We had just celebrated Onam with Amit's parents, who had come from Chennai. I had cauliflower, hot and spicy, in my lunch box. Amit's mother had put the recipe on the fridge door, held in place by the Eiffel Tower magnet Amit had bought on his only trip abroad.
Gayatri had asked to meet me on Friday—I had put it off for three days and now, the following Wednesday, we faced each other across her pistachio coloured desk.
"You know why we have to meet."
Know? I had known for some time. I had heard about it in the ladies' toilet with the imported toilet paper and paper towels. I had sat on the john, hardly breathing as the HR manager had told Gayatri, "She's got to go. Will you tell her? We'll give you the necessary assistance."
The necessary assistance. A psychiatrist was on call that whole week to counsel out those who had been told to walk, to leave, to get out. And if you were in too much shock, if you felt your legs would be too weak to carry you, they sent a member of the housekeeping staff to help you carry your belongings.
I didn't have any belongings. In the three years that I worked there all I had accumulated on my desk were papers and notepads. These I was asked to shred. A security guard and the HR manager kept watch as I fed project reports and stacks of emails into the machine. The manager, a young Goan, talked on the phone to her mother and husband over the monotonous whirr of the shredder. After that, I went to the IT department and surrendered the laptop. I signed three forms. In the HR interview I was asked to sign a non disclosure form. I was promised a cheque—it would reach me in ten days. I got it after two months. Gayatri, who was planning a short trip back home to Coorg, hovered at the building exit. "Take care," she said.
Ever since the company had started planting stories in the business press about layoffs, I had tried to imagine what I would do if I were fired. I thought I would weep quite a bit. Go into a funk and stay in bed for days. But when it actually did happen, the tears didn't come. Not even afterwards.
I didn't tell Amit that I had been fired. I dressed up each morning, packed our lunches, took my purse and walked out of the house to the bus stop. I then crossed the road and walked to the lending library and coffee shop. I sat on its steps till ten o clock when it opened and then sat inside till noon, reading. After a week, I told him the truth. He was calm and empathetic—the sweet, understanding spouse out of a self help book or talk show. Good, he said, you needed a break. You were burnt out.
"You told me I was burnt out."
Amit, overtaking a lorry filled with cattle, didn't reply. His face was dark with concentration, his hands nervously roaming the circumference of the steering wheel. Shubha Mugdal was wailing on the stereo.
"I hate this song." He hit a button and switched on the radio. The perky RJ was narrating stale movie star gossip from the back page of the Bangalore Times.
"Was I burnt out, Amit?"
"Why bring this up now?"
"We never talked about it."
"Let's just talk of something else, okay? Forget work."
Amit was made project manager a month after I was fired. Two years of working late nights and alternate Sundays paid off on a warm October day. He came in, an hour earlier than usual. I was de-seeding cucumbers when he rushed in and said, I got a promotion. I put the knife down and didn't say anything.
He talked without pausing for breath. The boss was happy, the client was happy, senior management was happy. His project was up for an award. The client wanted him to visit New York and stay for a while there.
All I thought was, I should put the cucumbers in the fridge. Amit had stopped talking and was looking at me.
"Aren't you happy for me?"
"Amit, I was the best student in our class." The fridge door was not closing properly. I forced aside the containers and shoved the bowl with the cucumbers. I turned back to face him and he wasn't there.
The bedroom door banged shut. It would be a week before I congratulated him, a month before we started talking about his work.
Now he refused to talk about mine. All he wanted was breakfast.
"Think we'll get a good uthappam there? I remember last time I had eaten a nice uthappam and your father had eaten kesari bath. He hadn't liked it—"
"He didn't like a lot of things."
"He was picky about things—"
"No, he just hated things that didn't suit his idea of what was right. He was a close minded bigot."
Amit tightened his hands on the steering wheel.
"He's dead—you should be more respectful."
"He hated you when I first told him I wanted to marry you. He asked me if you were the first boy I was moony about and if I was obliged to marry you. That's the man he was. Who threatened to cut my mother out of his will. He was a bastard."
"I am just sick of your anger—" He swerved past cranes and weak, stumpy trees that were haphazardly standing at the end of the flyover. Muddy pits and sand traps lay in front of us, the road potholed and breaking apart.
"Forget it Amit, just concentrate on the driving."
We were in Tamil Nadu now, darting behind and overtaking buses and trucks, over and up the rocky lunarscapes just outside of Krishnagiri. Half an hour later we were rattling over half finished roads, flattened land on either side. The cool winter mist that frosted the car windows a few minutes back had evaporated, the heat was baking the road and the houses were salmon pink and kiwi green, scattered until the diversion to Krishnagiri when they started huddling together again. Schoolchildren milled around a bus, water bottles bumping against their hips. Farmers, merchants and shopkeepers rode Vespas in white mundus and kurtas. We were out of range of the glittering, smoky city and American Top Hits Radio. Amit put on an Elvis CD.
We reached Toppur at nine thirty. We missed the Adyar Ananda Bhavan and stopped at a filling station with three fuel dispensers, abutting a corn field and a banana grove. Three men sat around watching the passing traffic and there were stray dogs curled up in the gravel, sleeping.
"Go back a hundred meters saar, it's on your right," the older one said.
So we turned around, drove for a few minutes and found it, with snaking queues in the restaurant and the toilets. Half of Bangalore was escaping the city.
"Maybe we should have stayed back," Amit said, "The city would have been great. Empty roads, quiet afternoons."
I stood in the queue at the ladies restroom. A mother and her teenage daughter were arguing. The daughter refused to go in - it would be filthy, she was sure of it. Her mother was red with anger, saying it would be bad for her, for her organs, all those toxins. The daughter stalked off. The mother, petite and well preserved with a thick gold necklace and Gucci sunglasses on her head, watched her daughter walk away.
"Stubborn girl. Will she do it in the bloody field then?"
The toilet was smelly and filthy and destroyed my appetite. When I entered the restaurant, I saw Amit was sitting at a table where a husband and wife, old and handsome, sat and ate dosas. Their driver was perched on a chair at the other table. Occasionally the husband ordered the driver to do this and that in Malayalam - usually, fetch the water, the waiter, get us some juice.
Amit ordered an uthappam and I asked for tea. It took fifteen minutes.
"Service here is horrible," said the husband as he, his wife and driver got up to leave. He didn't intend to tip. The husband and wife leisurely ambled out of the restaurant with their driver bouncing in front, like an over eager labrador. They got into their car, a BMW, and the sleek car pulled out, watched by practically all those in the restaurant and the farm workers on the other side of the road.
"Wasn't his wife something to do with films?" asked Amit.
"She was very good looking."
"I am sure she was in a TV series."
Amit finished his utthappam and paid the cashier. I had twenty thousand rupees in the bank and had not offered to pay or buy anything since I was fired—not groceries, not fuel for the car and no birthday present for him. I asked him what he wanted, the day before his birthday. He said nothing. But he touched my thigh and later we made love—or rather he did, pushing and heaving over me. He eventually rolled away, spent and breathless. He stroked my hair. I remembered the first time we had done it, in the back of his car. I had pushed myself upon him. Three months later, we were married.
"Don't just marry him because you've been fucking him." Sibling wisdom that saw into the soul with X-ray eyes.
We turned toward Mettur. This was the route my father loved, the climb up the mountain, the view of the Bhavani and the endless fields of sugarcane, corn and sunflowers. The fried fish below the dam. Traffic on the narrow one way road on top of the dam was regulated by traffic signals on each end of the dam. It wasn't a pretty town, Mettur. Heavy industries surrounded the dam, aluminium and steel works with their own narrow gauge tracks for trolleys running by the side of the road, grey tin roofs of chemical factories, grey walls, fumes in the sky and searing heat even in December.
And over the Stanley reservoir and down the hill, into the steaming pit of the valley where fishermen sell fish they have caught in the reservoir to passing cars. You can always trap a Malayali with fish.
My father ate the fish at the cart, standing there, biting into the chilli coated flesh. My mother kept ready the bananas she'd bought the previous evening—he will need it, she said. Amit had stood by my father as he ate, nibbling little pieces and refusing to commit to a whole slice.
We didn't stop for the fish. Amit glanced at a cart but kept driving. We passed by the Bhavani. The road was in bad shape but the trees hid the sun and the cool breeze from the river had muted the heat. Trucks and drivers were parked on the banks of the river, drivers bathing and bantering with the women washing clothes on the ghat.
"I need a breath-mint," Amit said and stopped at a shack that sold boiled sweets in giant glass jars and brown bananas. I got out, feeling the grey mud sink slightly under my feet. I walked up the steps and down to the ghat. The men and women talked like old friends, chiding each other about missed meals and missed spouses. Two of the younger drivers flirted with a pretty young thing dressed in a bright red skirt and yellow blouse. She pouted as they made fun of her lisp. Amit came down and stood next to me. The men yelled at us, asking where we were going.
"Thrissur," Amit replied.
"Temple town? Elephants," the girl waved her hands.
"Yes, the Vadekkunathan temple."
The old washerwomen smiled at us. The men floated in the water, a few washed the muddy wheels of their trucks. One had a fishing line balanced on his thigh.
"It's so pretty here," Amit said.
He took out his phone and started shooting pictures. I walked back to the car.
"Come on, smile," he shouted.
I first noticed him during a lull in an afternoon physics lecture. He was so quiet. He had soft black hair, a wide mouth and silence. Among the cacophonous boys, he was a rarity. The girls ignored him and his disdain for the Tamil movie songs they all loved didn't help. They teased him, he didn't respond. I didn't talk much either and we got thrown together a lot when close friends started seeing each other. Being the single ones in a torrent of college romances, we sat together watching the others cavort and didn't talk. He asked me out eventually, and we saw each other on and off. Three years later we were in Bangalore and a year later, husband and wife. His parents were not happy and neither were mine. But it eventually happened, and the wedding guests ate biriyani and drank pineapple juice.
Now we weren't talking again, back to where we started. Unlike college, there was no one else to use as a distraction.
He started up the car and we were on our way again.
The roads were still under construction, the median still had the same struggling dust covered plants, a desperate attempt at landscaping. We bumped and hurtled over the cratered road and the seared fields flew past. The horses would start appearing now.
The wedding date had been decided and I was going to meet my grandmother. A hot May day with the sun hiding and appearing from behind clouds, the roads were bumpy and there was no conversation in the car. My parents rarely talked to each other on long drives. I fell asleep just after we'd left Bhavani and woke up near Avinashi, land of textile mills and maize fields. A ferocious, bone jarring jump over a pothole woke me up, and I saw the first of Aiyanar's white horses with green and pink motifs, standing guard in a maize field.
I thought it was a dream and didn't say or ask, What's that horse doing there?
Then they appeared every few meters or so, some standing together, most single and watching the road, eyes focused on something none of us could see.
"Are they guarding the fields?" I asked my mother.
"Something like that."
Horses—not the real ones but those from myth galloped here. No one I knew could explain them. Searching for them on the web one day, I read an old paper by an American ceramics expert on the men who created them. The horses created a magnetic field that protected and nurtured the fields. These were old beliefs, ones that colleagues in glass and steel buildings could not explain. It's all superstitious rubbish, they said, as we sat together for lunch. They are primitive, ugly and what are they staring at? Moreover, why horses?
The horses were still there, as we drove past the dry coarse fields. They sold smaller terracotta versions of these on the pavements in Bangalore and those who wanted a little ethnic chic in their homes used it as a conversation piece. A god's conveyance was the treasured possession of the upwardly mobile.
My mother thought about buying one of them but didn't. Imagine if they crumble, she said, cleaning the place will be so messy, so difficult.
My mother's penchant for cleanliness, almost an OCD was matched by my father's mania for orderliness. The day after he died, my aunt called and said that my mother told her there wouldn't be much cleaning to do. He was a clean man, she was a sympathetic wife. See how everything is in order. But not everything was in order. The bank accounts of which she had little knowledge and which he used to cheat her of the money she was owed, for cleaning, cooking, washing, ironing and taking care of a family of four for the duration of a forty year marriage. She didn't get that. He left that to his sisters and brothers and a little to me and my sister. He left us the house. We gave it to her and she had stayed there for a year now, depending on our monthly cheques, getting rid of the maid and cleaning that huge house from top to bottom—a weekly exercise she started every Monday and finished on Saturday only to rest and begin again with the new week.
We stopped for a while after having passed the diversion to Avinashi. Coimbatore was ahead, and clean, smooth roads for a good distance. Amit bought two tender coconuts and handed one to me through the window.
"Why don't you get out? Aren't you cramped?"
So I got out. The sun hit me hard and I swayed. He caught me by the arm and steadied me against the car. Cars were rushing past and some turned off the road to eat at the dhabas, brick stalls with thatch roofs, filled with textile mill workers and truckers.
"Aren't you hungry? You haven't eaten anything."
"I will eat something in Valayar."
The vendor scooped up the tender coconut flesh and handed the fruit back to us. It tasted of rain and summer.
"I can't believe it was so cold in Bangalore."
"It's been colder."
At three o' clock we drove on the rutted nightmare of a road into Kerala. It was so green here it hurt to look around. At Valayar, we stopped at a motel and ate fried rice and chicken manchurian, the only dishes that restaurants in central Kerala knew to serve besides parotta and biriyani.
We sat in the veranda in plastic chairs and stared at the Western Ghats shrouded in mist.
"He ate his last dish of fried rice here."
Amit looked at me. "This has been a hard year for you."
"It's been hard for a lot of people. Amma, my sister."
"I am so sorry. I don't know what to do—I have tried so hard. But you just don't respond. And after he died you didn't say anything. Nothing. The funeral. Getting back to work—"
Guinea fowl run around in the garden below. Where are my tears? I am filled with more resentment than sorrow. I couldn't grieve after his death last year—I went back to work after hardly a week and worked on an account application project for a major client. A client who managed to survive and post profits despite the meltdown, who awarded more deals to my ex-employer, delighted with the success of the application I'd designed. Eleven months later, they fired me. Amit strokes my arm. What should annoy, send pulses of rage through my mind, and turn my hands into claws, comforts me.
We sit in that silent restaurant for another hour. The waiters have disappeared downstairs. We hear them laughing. They joke about songs and girls and the approaching holidays. We are alone, surrounded by trees and passing traffic. And green, hurtful green.
A year ago I fought with my father and amma and cried down by the bird cage in the motel garden. There were no Guinea fowl on that day, but quail.
Amit had squeezed my hand then, whispered things I couldn't remember. We reached the Thrissur house, and the next day took a flight back to Bangalore with a bag of custard-apples. A month later he was dead.
It was four when we finally got into the car. As he manoeuvred the car and pointed it up the incline to the main road, we talked about how the Ghats couldn't help but be beautiful.
We were on the road again, in a convoy of trucks and oil and milk tankers, the holiday rush from Bangalore and Coimbatore and Chennai, ignoring college students asking for a ride. We'd go around Kadiran Hill and past its tribal temple with its beautiful murals and speed down towards Thrissur and that house.
"We can always leave fast."
"No, let's stay couple of days. Let's buy her vegetables. She was complaining she couldn't find good beans anywhere."
"Yes, she'll need fruits."
A man in a mundu, his wife and two sons on an Enfield rode past us. The smallest was squeezed tight between the father and mother while the bigger one was at the front, breeze blowing through his hair.
Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Maybe.