I do not want to beat about this bush or that bush. I will say it straight: I am not a perverted fellow. It has never been my habit to move with prostitutes or other women of that type. Not even once have I made a lewd remark to a lady or suggested some dubious act to anyone other than my wife. I was always faithful to Lata and she will certainly vouch for that, wherever she is resting now. I am from a decent family; I have a good position in the community; I have clean hands.
Unfortunately for me, I am in love with my daughter-in-law.
Every morning Meera and I sit on the verandah with our coffee, just like Lata and I did the time we went to Kodaikanal. Meera scans the paper and I scan her, although not in a way that would make her feel uncomfortable. My son Vikram usually sleeps till late, so it is just the two of us, apart from Venu running back and forth from the kitchen. That boy never walks.And without a doubt, it is love. It is necessary to say this to challenge the obvious conclusion, that my predicament is a matter of lust and libido. The problem is society, which over and above everything else, has a filthy mind. People will say: look at the dirty bugger, he has no shame, how could he even think such a thing? What I would say in response is this: look at my track record and my intentions, look at my character. After such an examination, only a clean chit can be the result. But it is my bad luck that things are not so simple.
Meera reads out some interesting tit-bit: “Principal absconds with student and college cook.”
Then she gives me a half-smile and shakes her head in that special way: what will people do next? The smile that also means: what will we do next?
Long after our second cup, when the paper has slid onto the floor and Venu has trotted off into the kitchen garden, we continue to sit here, staring at the slopes. There is no need for this type of attendance on her part or on mine, but we do it anyway, feeling something between thrill and anxiety.
“I really need to have my bath and start the day,” she often says, not moving.
“The day is not going anywhere,” I say.
In a few weeks the rains will be here and the water will smash against every side of the bungalow. I suppose then we will have to go back inside. But I am not going to think about that; at the moment the sunshine is still lighting up the hillsides, every bush aching with green.
I have said that my feelings are not based on lust and I maintain that position. But it has to be said that Meera is beautiful. At times, when she is lost in her own world, her face reminds me of one of those fifties tragedy queens. The expression is a little sulky; the determined chin is lowered; that loose strand is tucked behind her ear. Then our eyes will meet, I will say something about Venu or the constant damn mist up here and her spirit returns, the laughter springing out of her eyes. This week her nail polish has been chipped: it makes her look a little bold, a little mischievous. I can imagine her hands pinning my wrists down as her hair falls over my face.
Three or four tiles have fallen off the roof. Early in the day, all the taps splutter mindlessly and then spew out a muddy trickle. Somewhere there is a leak and the drip goes on through the night. I am not going to mention these things to Vikram again, as it will only annoy him.
All over the house there are items that seem to have been left behind by previous occupants. There is a broken pram in the storeroom off the kitchen. A framed painting of a woman nuzzling a deer gathers cobwebs on the top shelf in my room. They are using a cricket bat as a doorstop.
And there is the smell of tea always. There are packets of dust stacked up in the storeroom. Export quality cartons fall out of the kitchen cupboard. Cloth bags full of leaves sit in a basket on the dresser, and there is more tea in its drawers. The smell is like burnt bread or sawdust or damp wood. I can’t stand the stuff.
Vikram has been the manager of the estate for nearly three years. He is hardly at home and spends most of his time “whipping the place into shape,” as he likes to announce to any visitor. According to him the pluckers are lazy, the field supervisors are cheats, and the fuel suppliers are racketeers. He explains these things to me as if I have never been in proper employment; as if I am under the impression that running an enterprise is like playing a game of gully cricket.My home in Coimbatore was very different. Smaller, of course, but neater. I sold it two years ago and came to live here. Vikram got a tip that a chemical plant had been given permission to set up just five kilometers away from our old neighborhood. He strongly advised me to sell the place before the property prices crashed. I can’t blame him for wanting to safeguard his inheritance. So I sold the place, put the money in a fixed deposit and now I’m cooling my heels here in tea country.
“We could be affected by a political crisis on the other side of the world, by fashions in Japan, incomes in Russia. You really have to keep your eye on the ball in this game,” he said a few mornings ago.
“When Russians become rich, I am sure the first thing they dream of is a hot cup of Nilgiri chai,” I said.
“Really? And when you were at the bank, rubber-stamping some clerk’s thirty thousand rupee loan to finance his daughter’s wedding, what international considerations were going through your mind then?”
“Vikram, please,” said Meera.
He shrugged and walked out onto the verandah, yelling for one of the workers.
The estate is owned by the Sisodias, and they are the center of our universe here, although sometimes they are not seen for months. Old Man Sisodia, what more can be said about him? I think even God is afraid to tell him his innings are nearly over. The elder Sisodia son concerns himself with other aspects of their businesses: the plastics and the cement. The younger Sisodia son is in charge of the sugar and tea. I mentioned that he just needs to buy a dairy farm and then he will be all set but Vikram did not even smile. That boy thinks the Sisodias are gods.
There is also a Sisodia nephew and he is the one that we see the most. He comes here in his jeep, wearing sunglasses even when the afternoon is thick with fog. When he is around, we see even less of Vikram. They say they are going to Coonoor for meetings and auctions, and then do not return for a few days. They play golf. They go horse riding. I am sure Vikram will have said that he has ridden ever since he can remember. I have learnt that there are many things about his past that have been adjusted for the benefit of the Sisodia family.
A few nights ago I lay in bed listening to that damn drip. I thought a slow count during the interval between each drop would send me to sleep. But it only made me more restless. I found myself becoming anxious if the drop did not arrive on time. So I got up to go to the bathroom. In the corridor I could see a rectangle of light coming from their room. I walked to the edge of the door. In the gap between the hinges, I saw what Vikram hides from the world.
He was asleep on the bedspread, his shirt still tucked into his trousers, his mouth twisted in contempt. Meera was sitting up on her side, her head leaning back against the wall. There was a book open in her lap but her eyes were closed. Her plait hung down one side, stopping at the place where the buttons on her nightie began. This was not a woman asleep; this was a woman in suspense.
I have been a husband. I know that there are secrets from the world, other lives in the darkness. But Meera is an exceptional woman and does not deserve to be treated in this shabby way. Look at you, Vikram, I thought; look at this tiptop man. A man who comes home too drunk even to talk to the woman who has spent the day sitting on the verandah, wondering what her life would have been like in a place far away from this wilderness. Meera’s head did not nod or drop as I watched. That is how I know she was awake. I think she sensed my presence and yet she did not move. She left the door ajar and the light on for me, in defiance of her husband’s sour breaths.
I withdrew. In the bathroom I looked at my face, sitting solidly above these too big pajamas. A man my age must be allowed to have a last frolic in his head. Allow me Meera, I said to myself: whom does it hurt? It is not as if anything will actually happen.
Not all happiness has to be big. Lata knew that and I have no doubt that it was a certainty she had even before we were married. I turned down promotion after promotion because I did not want to be transferred to some godforsaken place every few years. I did not want to be involved with the politics of the managers. I did what I was asked, and that was enough. It did not diminish us.
When Lata and I went to Kodaikanal, on the final day we decided to have coffee at a big hotel. There was no one sitting at the table next to us; only a dog asleep on a chair. About a half dozen silver bowls were spread across the white tablecloth, all nearly full of soupy ice cream. Various hotel staff members were loafing near the restaurant door, but we were simply left to sit there for a long time. We did not mind, as it gave us ample opportunity to take in the surroundings: the huge windows looking out on to the lawn, the yards of red velvet, the fireplace.
A bearer finally came to take our order, wearing a turban that looked like a giant bird was seated on his head. As he turned away from us, a woman came into the restaurant to retrieve the dog. Her hair was piled up in a strange sculpture and she wore a black furry jacket.
“Chikita,” she said.
The way she swung her large hips reminded me of the gait of a boar.
The dog sprang off the chair and they left the restaurant together: the dog and the boar.
When it came, the coffee was expensive, lukewarm, and tasteless. Lata and I left the restaurant, barely able to hide our giggles. We were just like little children. And we strolled back down to the lake, as if we were the only people in the place who knew a precious secret.
So that is what we were. Dinner dances were for people in films. We never owned a car. The first time I tasted beer, I was in my forties. The only people in our lives were our relations and neighbors. In our house there was some coming and going, there were festivals, I thought there was fun. But all this holds no value for Vikram. All he can see is that I shared the same desk at the same bank for twenty years and that one night at his club I mixed up Canada and Canberra.
To get to this estate, you have to leave Coonoor on NH67, the road to Mettupalayam, and take a left after the sign for the army memorial. Then just past the Lakshmi Devi Women’s Cooperative building there is a side road, too narrow for two vehicles to pass each other. The road rises through a stretch of silver oaks and eucalyptus trees. After a couple of kilometers there is a board indicating the road to the Greencrest Tea Estate. The planters who live there are our nearest neighbors, a most dismal couple that Vikram seeks out when he is in the mood. The man mumbles and looks like he wears face powder; the woman laughs in an inappropriate manner and is always spilling food on herself. After the Greencrest turning, the road narrows further and continues for another six or seven kilometers before stopping at our high metal gate. “Private Estate” it says. But who is there to read it?
Venu does most of the cooking. There is an old woman who comes in to scrub and sweep, but God only knows what she really does when she is here. Meera is not the domestic type, but that is not a problem because she has never had the need; nor will there ever be a need, I am sure.
We have been playing rummy all afternoon. I am not really fond of the game. But it is something to do here and we can prolong our chat around the routine of the cards. I am wearing my maroon sweater, the stylish one.
“It looks like it’s getting clear outside,” says Meera. “Shall we take a small walk?”
“No, I think better to leave it for today. I still feel a bit of heaviness in my chest.”
“Maybe tomorrow, then. Here, show.”
She drops a card and then splays the rest out, her elegant fingers resting between us on the sofa.
“I think you were just trying to distract me with all your chattering about walks. Points on this game to be discounted.”
“You are the chattering one, appa. Not only will we count the points, we’ll double them as a penalty for your attempted cheating.”
“Who do you think you’re calling a cheater?”
She laughs and begins to gather up the cards.
I clasp her hand to stop her. Our hands are locked, my palm sliding back over her knuckles, warmth passing between us. My fingers curl up and press into her buttery skin. I run my thumb up her little finger in the most natural way.
She stands up, and the cards fall from her lap. I try to grab her hand again but she shakes me off. Even though my heart is racing, I take comfort from the fact that she does not look angry. Hers is not a face of disgust or shame or fury. It is something else entirely, that I cannot place.
“Venu,” she calls, heading to the kitchen. “Venu.”
I pick up the fallen cards one by one, peeling them off the floor. I look at the two faces on the jack of clubs. They look back at me.
Vikram seems to be in an unusually good mood tonight. That indicates to me that Meera has not said anything to him. They are going to the club to meet a German tea taster, some sort of world champion in the business.
“You know, appa, it is such a bloody pleasure to meet someone who really knows what he is talking about, especially when you share the same passions,” says Vikram, knotting his tie.
I don’t know what passions he is talking about but I assume it is tea, since that is what this poor German spends his life tasting. As far as I know, Vikram never gave two damns about tea. I still don’t think he does. If the Sisodias offered him a more senior position in an insurance company or a car business, he would run there before the words had even fully left their mouths. But this poor German will never know that.
“I met Jürgen and his wife at the Sisodias’ place in London,” says Vikram. “Lovely couple.”
Meera has not said one word since she came out of the room, dressed for their dinner. She is wearing a pink sari with a silver border and her hair is up, making her neck look long and regal. While Vikram is fussing with his shoelaces, she walks over to the window. The night is completely black already, and Venu has switched on the verandah lights. Her blouse is cut low at the back: its arc is making my head spin. There are about two hand spans of skin above the fastening, a complicated knot with silver tassels.
I am now sure that she has not mentioned anything to Vikram. She has decided to let it pass, a malfunction in her father-in-law’s head, momentary and not serious. Maybe she did not even recognize it as anything irregular. These things happen: a brush or a knock or a bump.
The scent she uses for special occasions is in the air.
“His English is excellent,” says Vikram, smiling at Meera’s back. “He certainly knows all the lingo.”
She does not turn around.
These tea fellows think they have invented a language. They like to explain to the layman the meaning of a “second flush”; how the product can become “chesty” when it is tainted with the smell of packing materials; that when boiling water is poured over tea, the agitation in the cup is “the agony of leaves.” To make sure you understand, they tell you twice, and then a third time.
“Darling, shall we go?”
Vikram is ready. Meera nods and walks towards the door. My head is filling with more and more blood. She will not leave without wishing me a good night, without giving me some indication.
“Appa, we will see you in the morning. If you need some coffee or something, can you wake Venu and ask him to do it? You know what happened last time,” says Vikram.
She is adjusting her shawl in the doorway. I stand up and take a step forward. It will remind her that I am here, that all I need is one look.
“And don’t touch the bolts. We will lock it from the outside.”
She is now standing by the balustrade. I stop myself from calling out.
Vikram pats his jacket pockets and steps outside. The door swings shut and I hear her heels move away on the verandah boards.
Lata went through a bad time after her mother died. Only now do I realize how bad it was. One night I returned to our house and not a single light was on. It was all the more mystifying because it was the day before Deepavali. Ours was the only house on the street looking like that, a hole where a home should have been.
Inside, there was more darkness. Vikram was at a neighbor’s house. Lata was lying on our bed, her arms crossed over her face. I shook her shoulder.
“I’m awake,” she said.
“Are you sick?”
I could barely hear my voice over the sound of the fireworks rattling and cracking up and down the street.
“I can’t get up,” she said.
I thought she meant that there was something wrong with her back or her legs. I asked her if she needed to go to the hospital.
“I have been trying for months but I just can’t get up,” she said.
It was then that I understood.
“You must not be weak,” I said. “You must be strong.”
She reached out and took my hand with a force I had not felt before. She held it in that strange spinning light and we stayed that way for most of the night, watching the colors rocket past the window.
Here, at night in the Nilgiri Hills, there is no light, no noise. This is a place where dogs don’t howl, babies don’t cry, people don’t speak. Out on the terraces, I have noticed that under every shrub there exists a different kind of silence.
“Where is Meera?” I ask Venu.
“They came in very late. Madam said she has a headache. She’s sleeping.”
I continue with my brainteaser. It’s a complicated affair involving balls placed in a series of boxes. The aim is to identify the number and color of the balls in each box but I can’t even work out how many colors there are supposed to be. I give up again.
It has started to rain. Not the forceful storms that we expected but something meager and gasping. The slopes have lost all color. Today they are only slabs of charcoal, ready to slide down towards the wet plains.
Venu has a cough: an uneven, high-pitched, bouncing affliction. Apart from the whooshing of the drizzle, it is the only sound in the bungalow.
Meera does not leave her room all day.
The TV screen here features a range of shades from blue to grey. I have been informed that it is something to do with the altitude and the way in which the cables are laid, but I have not attempted to understand this reasoning. So whether it is an evening serial or the news or a music program, the participants always look depressed or terminally ill. It takes away the fun of watching.
Meera’s avoidance tactics have been continuing. There can be no doubt that my foolish action has scared and upset her. I have to return us to our previous positions, no matter what it takes. There is no other way for us to live here. I will beg her for forgiveness and she will take pity on me. Vikram will never have to know about any of this.
I am a fool: a detestable old fool.
Meera is nowhere to be seen. I was on my own at breakfast, with Venu being excessively polite, as if he was mocking my presence. Maybe I was imagining it. According to him, a friend came to pick her up, but I am sure this is a tall tale. I have been on the lookout since early morning and I did not hear any car outside.
I go into their room and look around: there are no clues. Her brown handbag is on the dressing table, but she could have taken a different one I suppose. I open the wardrobe door and stare at the jumble of shoes. I crouch down and pick up a high heel with a silky bow attached to it. Where would that bow be positioned? Across the toe or around the ankle or perhaps higher up somewhere. I pick at the bow, working at the knot with both hands, plucking and pulling, but it won’t come undone. With my nails I burrow into the fabric. I tear at it with my teeth, sputtering out the glossy fibers that stick to my tongue. It seems ridiculous that I cannot do anything with this knot. In the end I exhaust myself and drop the shoe back into the wardrobe.
In the sitting room cabinet there is a nearly full bottle of foreign whisky. You see that in films. The man facing a crisis strides into a room; he pulls the bottle towards him, unscrews the cap and tosses it over his shoulder; the very sound of the liquid glugging into the glass is comforting; we know that he will soon be restored; he throws it back in one gulp; his eyes return to focus; he repeats. They don’t tell you that you will get a headache even before your second sip; that its smell will make your eyes water; that what you fear will leap from your heart into your head.It is so difficult without her. There is the sound of a blade hitting a board in the kitchen and I go in there because I can’t be alone. Venu is sitting on the floor, cutting the eyes out of potatoes. It only now occurs to me that he seems to be here all the time. Since I arrived he does not appear to have taken any leave, visited any family, or gone off to have a good time. I want to ask him something about his life but he gives me a look of such wariness; a look that says he is tired of living with the obscene knowledge in his possession. I turn around and leave the kitchen.
“Not with soda, appa. Never with soda. With ice, fine. If you must,” Vikram once said to me.
So in spite of myself, I begin drinking the whisky as it is, with neither soda nor ice. It is what Vikram would want.
When Meera returns home, I am still in the sitting room.
She turns on the light and starts.
“You gave me a shock. Why are you sitting in the dark?”
These are the first words she has said to me for days.
I draw myself off the sofa, reordering the sentences that I have prepared, the thing that must be said.
As if sensing that what I am going to say will not be to her liking, she turns away.
“Wait, please wait,” I say.
Her gaze falls to the glass on the floor. “You’ve been drinking?”
“I’ve been thinking, about you.”
“You sound strange. Are you drunk?”
“No. I am sorry.”
I move forward but my legs are so unsteady that I drop to my knees, clutching the side of the armchair for support. I dare not look at her so instead I look in her direction, where there are books and cushions and leather and wood and the floor. I begin to speak.
“I don’t want you to misunderstand me, about what happened, which was a mistake, a misunderstanding you see, but I am very sorry, I never meant to make you angry or hurt you when you have been so kind to me, the type of kindness I can’t explain.”
“No, please, you need to understand because I don’t think you understand my position at all.”
I stop speaking because a wave of nausea comes over me.
Her voice is a whisper: “Don’t do this. I don’t know what you want from me.”
I wish she would understand that I am doing this in order to stop it; to reassure her that it will never happen again; that our lives will return to that gentle order on which we are both so dependent. She does not seem to understand, so I need to make one last effort to bring clarity. I need to end the confusion.
I think of getting to my feet but instead approach her on my hands and knees, going from the softness of the carpet to the hard wooden floor where she is standing. I stretch out but slip. I am lying on the floor now and my hands reach out and touch her ankles.
“Meera,” I say.
I look up.
In her eyes, there is the pity that comes with horror. She begins to sob, great shuddering breaths that terrify me. I lay my forehead on the ground and plead with her to listen to me. Her feet give off the chill of these hills and I know that she will jerk them free at any moment.
I know what I am saying but I cannot be sure if she is able to hear me. Her sobs are too loud, the lights are too bright, the hour is too late. I have to reverse the clock and I am prepared to keep explaining until I have made amends.
I begin again when there is the sound of footsteps on the verandah, snuffing out my words. The door crashes open, snapping back with the force. But there is someone there to take its weight. I turn my head and see Vikram in the doorway, his proportions all wrong, the head so far away, the torso wide, the legs endless. Through the smears of my sight I now see that he is not alone. Behind him stands the Sisodia nephew, his head to one side, as if he has averted his eyes.
The rain seems to have disappeared. Solid bands of mist have encircled the bungalow over the past few days. Yesterday I could not even see the fence from my window. Today is not much better. The bands are the same shades of blue and grey as the TV screen.
I am trying a new brainteaser. This one involves ordering a set of circles, each with a number in the center, so that applying a given formula to the set yields a specific number. It is more difficult than I thought it would be.
I hear Venu’s tread. It is accompanied by the trembling of a cup on a saucer. Strange that it should be so loud, this rattle, and curiously slow, as if it has something to announce. Even though it is only a few paces from the kitchen to where I am sitting, the sound continues, the clattering of china. I recognize that I am expecting the cup to fall, to shatter into a thousand pieces. Then I see Venu and he puts the cup and saucer down in front of me.
“Sir had phoned,” he says. “They are staying there a few more days. They are coming back, maybe next week, maybe later.”
I look at the steam rising from the cup on the table.
“No, not for me,” I say; “no more tea.”