TRANSLATED FROM THE HINDI BY RITUPARNA MUKHERJEE
Anay had left, it was the first thing that struck Raka’s mind as she opened her eyes in the morning. Her hands and feet turned cold. She disregarded this thought along with the bedcover she had on her skin, removing it as far away from her as she could. She reminded herself not to think about him anymore! What had happened could not be taken back…
She came out of the bathroom, sipped some lemon water and made herself a cup of tea. Her head felt heavy. Her eyelids were swollen. She had lost count of the number of pegs she had drunk last night… she could use a cup of strong coffee but she couldn’t find it in the house. Her body felt listless. She was relieved that her office was on a break for a three-day holiday.
She came and sat on the balcony, her cup of tea in hand. The morning was awash in the white light of the sun. a pair of sparrows were twittering on the parapet of the house in front. The plants in the pots were full of flower buds- impatient to bloom! The shining flower petals in their rosy hue seemed like rows of glass beads to her. the sunrays were colored green next to the leaves of the money plant. She would have an argument with Anay regularly on watering these plants… pealing her eyes off from the plants, she tried to look elsewhere.
There was not one corner of the house where she couldn’t find Anay. Merely leaving didn’t mean that he had left her life entirely… people stayed long after they were gone in their wandering smell, in the scraps of memories they left behind… she realized that someone could stay silently, folded in the pages of some book, in the ashes of the ashtray, in the creases on the bed… his words, laughter and touch had been gathering around the house for months. And within her as well. what will she be left with if she tried to take these away… objects did fill up a house but without meaning didn’t they make it forlorn as well? Their silence rang amidst their suffusion!
Nodding her head, she felt a curious exhaustion seeping through her. No matter how she tried to distract herself, every thought led to Anay. Why did one always travel backwards when alone, moving in concentric circles to where it all started? Some thresholds could never really be crossed! The mere distances crossed by feet were rendered meaningless here! Nearness or farness were just states of mind.
The two of them had been living together for the last one year. Anay was going through his own divorce. They were not sure how long it would have taken. They were not planning to get married at the moment. “What’s there in these customs? They just tie a person to someone else! We are alright this way…”, Anay would kiss her chocolate and wine tinted lips and all the lights of the city from her tenth-floor apartment would descend in her lifeless eyes- “We will never allow our relationship to cage us, Anay, we will be each other’s skies, roaming freely in its wide expanse together…”
The sky would seem particularly close to her in those days from her tenth-floor apartment in Mumbai, as if she could immerse her hand in its blues if she just reached out or gathered a cluster of twinkling stars and mischievously arranged them haphazardly! They would lay on their bed at night, awake, wordlessly looking at the glowing stars that seemed hanging from the window. The moon would rise in the skylight and set behind the fountain in the balcony… a world of their own away from the world outside, away from the laws, the confines of relationships, just love and faith…
“You don’t know the hell I have crossed to reach you! the intolerable weight of responsibilities and the endless litany of complaints! I was suffocated paying the price for relationships every step of the way!”, Anay would count the moles on her body and stop at the bluish one on her shoulder- “You know, this one shines in the dark!”
Confused within herself somewhat, she would often just ignore his words, the moments between sleep and wakefulness were for visceral dreams- “I can give you myself without any demands, that is why I have given myself entirely to you. I had decided that I would market the terms ‘love’, ‘surrender’, that I wouldn’t let anyone put a price on these words.” She had prided herself on these words, as if she were different from the crowd, unique- a pride stemming from the feeling of being matchless in her man’s eyes. She just didn’t occupy his bed, she also wrapped in herself the entirety of his mind, with its expansive skies, glowing in the space like the moon and the stars. Her body was not a pheasant trap for her love, it was a river of freedom and fulfillment…
“Don’t rely on a pinch of sindoor for your happiness! Our relationship is not worldly. Look at that woman for instance, she carries the proof of her relationship in papers, in pictures, ferrying her love to the police and courts of law, fetching its price like a contractor… as if such feelings have a price! I don’t even feel angry anymore, just pity for her. She is putting a price on herself this way, a tag on her life of seven years, her body, her womb… and that too such a lot!”
She had stopped pushing away thoughts of Anay. She had realized that attempts to forget someone was a means to remember. But she didn’t think that she could face those thoughts by herself. The blood in her chest would thin down. Getting up, she walked to the kitchen, rummaging the cabinet for the tiniest gulp of rum, although she was well aware that she wouldn’t find any. She and Noorie had gulped down every last drop of Coke and rum mixed together last night.
Noorie was an air hostess who often met her when she came to Mumbai along with some other friends. All of them would boisterously party together. Last year all of them had got wet at the Juhu Chaupati. They had been jailed for this transgression before morning arrived. Anay’s connection had worked in their favor at that time. His maternal uncle was the personal assistant to some minister.
Anay had come to their party for the first time that day. He had deep, dark eyes and shiny, messy hair. A little despondent and lost. While everyone else was having fun, he was in one corner desolate, drinking. She had spoken to him that day, a little hesitantly at first, then quite a lot. About all sorts of things! Till the morning. Sometimes in the balcony or on the terrace or sitting on the car bonnet. Empty beer bottles lay strewn in between the two of them. A few days later, Anay came to her apartment and they started living together.
Thinking about the past made her ache for a drink- I cannot bear to stay alone either with you or your thoughts for a few moments… Putting Anay’s picture back in the drawer from whence it had slipped out, she stood in front of the bathroom mirror and breathed deeply. She would start practicing yoga again from the next day for sure! She couldn’t even breathe properly at her age!
It was Anay who pushed her to do yoga sometimes. He would say- ‘since you are five years older you should ensure that you don’t die five years too soon. I have met you so late in my life, I don’t want to waste a minute!’ When the doctor had advised her to drink more water due to her kidney stones, he would always be there with a bottle of water in hand reminding her to drink timely. She felt agitated. There were bottles of water everywhere- on the bed-side table, in the drawing room, in the car! When she was in the office, he would call every half an hour and ask- ‘Did you drink water?’. everyone had started making fun of her- are you sure this is your boyfriend and not your father? She would be frustrated many-a-time and after pleading with him for some time, scold him.
The first time that she saw Anay weep, she was deeply perturbed. She had seen a man weep this way for the first time. He would cry easily. Even in front of people! His face would suddenly become pale and tears would stream down. He had embarrassed her quite often sobbing in front of people at parties, or malls or crowded streets. She would therefore be careful lest any of her words hurt Anay.
She didn’t realize when the memory of Anay’s tears had softened her eyes. She saw in the mirror her clouded face become light as the floating steam- how could she forget those salty tears, those words spoken repeatedly in that deep voice? If she could do that then the world in her eyes would become a lie! Nothing would remain- neither God nor man! She tried to hold on tightly to the faith that seemed to slip away from her fist with every passing minute but it seemed that both her palm and her fingers were melting alongside her.
Noorie had been harsh as always. She had laughed scornfully listening to her words- ‘You believe what a man says in bed, you silly girl!’ Tell me something, did he ever talk about his responsibilities to you at night? No, am I right? He must have come to you with his false promises of love! These are merely words that such men have. If he really intended to leave his wife, he wouldn’t have kept her clothes so carefully! He would spend time with you here but home to him meant the place he had with his wife. Didn’t you see how long he had preserved the vase of flowers his wife had kept? He would go there to argue his case and instead shut himself in a room and weep! They showed their love for each other through these fights, dear girl!’
Noorie’s words felt like boiling lava, scalding Raka’s skin, giving it boils. She couldn’t say anything in return though. The day that he could have made good on his promises, she saw Anay change. The phone calls from his home had also increased in the meantime- sometimes his mother, his son or his wife. Anay, who had openly discussed every aspect of his life with her thus far, began to be wary of bringing up his family or divorce in their conversations. Her questions would goad him, and he wouldn’t reply to any of them directly. He had also begun to keep busy, and was more tired and sleepy than before. Anay’s back lay on her bed like an insurmountable wall, his sleeping form cast a dark, unapproachable shadow on her bed.
Once, on returning from office, she was stunned to find Anay’s wife in her house. It was the festive day of Haritalika Teej . His wife was clad in a green saree, bangles in her hand, sindoor in the parting of her hair. Perhaps both of them had been crying together. Their eyes were red. When she asked later, Anay reminded her- ‘Don’t forget that we have a seven-year-old that we have given life to!’ She hadn’t forgotten a thing, perhaps he was starting to piece back all that he had shut out.
Finishing her tea, she roamed around her home like a corpse without knowing what she was searching for in each corner. She cleaned and made her bed but couldn’t rid it of the smell that seemed to have seeped in each fold and crevice of the bedspreads. Her memories lay painted on the walls, everything had the dull sheen of a past life…
A quick rage spread through her body. She must dispose Anay from every bit of her life, he mustn’t dwell in any part. She took out his clothes from the wardrobe, cut them into strips, tied them in knots and threw them in the dustbin. She emptied the gallery of pictures in her phone- pictures that were lies- their faces shining masquerades, painted in smiles. The true intentions lay hidden far beneath these joyful visages. Time… that was also a lie! The morsel of time, that she had received with Anay was merely time that she had spent aimlessly, it had no true meaning.
She had forgotten that the vacuum inside couldn’t be filled with objects. She was merely an object as well, a lifeless furniture! Anay was here, but never really present. She had been living with a shadow-self in her own delusion and had now been reduced to a shadow of her own self.
Anay had remarked suddenly one day- ‘Savita has returned home. I will have to as well. My son’s school will start soon’. She had listened to his words wordlessly. Then sobbing angrily, she had said many things to him, most of which she couldn’t recall. Anay had only said this in reply- ‘I have certain marital, societal responsibilities to my wife and child…’ The voice that had articulated these words were that of a stranger to Raka. She didn’t know this Anay.
She blocked Anay on Facebook, messenger and WhatsApp, deleted his phone number, unfollowed him on twitter… she was growing tired putting her mails in trash- where else could he remain? She would scour through her life and erase him from all its corners. With such thoughts her eyes fell on herself in the mirror- oh! Wasn’t she left, her whole self, mired in Anay’s memories, alive and throbbing in her love for him? Picking a scissor, she looked at herself critically- which of her parts could she snip away, delete, throw?
Her mobile phone rang aloud in the utter silence with the deafening clap of thunder. She received the call after some time. Noorie was on the other side- ‘Damn you! what took you so long to answer the phone? What were you up to?’ She replied sadly- ‘I was erasing Anay from my life, trying to forget him once and for all…’
‘So? Have you forgotten?’ Noorie chirped sarcastically on the other side. She was silent this time. What could she say? She looked at herself in the mirror- a living visage of Anay’s memories, his temporary haven that had turned into a structure of bricks with his departure. An empty apartment! She was overcome by tears- ‘Noorie…’
‘He wasn’t a mail, a picture or an object, Raka, that can be erased easily. Don’t give in to this madness, give yourself some time, only time can heal this wound’. Listening to Noorie’s words, the scissors fell from her hands to the floor. It was difficult for her to speak. She was blinded by tears. Noorie said carefully- ‘Raka, please understand, the act of loving someone, or forgetting, is not really a decision…’
Also, read The Charm by Chandrakiran Saunriksa translated from the Hindi by Vignesh Hampapura, and published in the Antonym: