Aftertaste

Chaandreyi Mukherjee

2022

Introduction

It is one of those gnostic theorems that it is far more fun to read (and write) about love going wrong than love being done right. The gnostics, of course, were those chaps who believed there was a God and there was a devil, but the devil had won. This story is firmly on the side of the gnostics.  It even has a cat.

More seriously, Chaandrey’s story walks the fragile tightrope between humour and fear. The narrator is a woman. It seemed to me that she’s not fighting her husband, but her own self. The question is not who will win. The question is, what worth such a victory.  Robert Stoller, one of our shrewdest observers of human perversion, wrote in his book on the subject: “Only those strong enough to trust will let others in, allow intimacy. But if we have reason to feel unsafe… we shall be on guard, fearful of what others may find were we to let them in and how they will use what they find. So we seal ourselves off, a process that dehumanizes us. Then, to be doubly safe, we dehumanize them. They convert to fetishes. For those who do not fear dissolution, intimacy is a joy. For those who do, there is an even more primitive threat: if I let someone in — if I thereby merge with that person — may he or she not, like an evil spirit, possess me, take me over entirely? Then, the great terror, I shall lose myself.”

Let this story in.

— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Aftertaste

With the eventual breakdown of our relationship, our cat stopped talking to us altogether. It didn’t even purr and maintained a stoic silence. Sometimes it didn’t eat for days even when given its favourite fish food. On certain occasions it stared wistfully out of the window. Gone were the days when we wondered about its return from promenades around the locality. It sat like a steamed vegetable and become a part of the furniture. When my husband tried to coax it and pull it closer, it snarled, raised its hind legs and slunk back into a darkened corner. The warm afternoons with it purring on my lap while I devoured fiction were a thing of the past.  

When I mentioned about the cat being depressed, my husband said it was because I kept calling her “it”. According to him, being called “it” had evidently made her realise that she was as insignificant as the coaster on our centre table. Those days my husband could create any number of arguments, however absurd they may be and unfortunately, they all seemed true. For me, however, it had been an “it” ever since he brought it in one rainy evening, shivering and half dead. Not because I was demeaning its identity or anything. I was also the one to feed it, clean its litter, give it a ritual bath despite getting scratched like hell. My husband would play with it and scratch its belly, rub its head and call it a “she”. That’s how he wins. That’s how he won me. First he pared all my moods with precision and coloured it with love. Next he laughed at my ridiculous dreams and converted me pragmatic. He introduced me to concepts, concerns, contemplations, and gave me a name. He called me “she” and I purred to him. 

On the equinox, the days and nights are of equal duration. They say one should drink a lot of water on those days. I kept on pouring fresh cool water in its dish only to be disregarded and thrown again. Once I watched it put its paws inside the dish and leave water marks all over our floor in concentric circles. I clicked a photo of the marks before they evaporated and showed it to my husband when he came home.

“You remember you wrote a poem called concentric cartography?” I said flipping the channels of the TV. 

“Oh…So you do remember certain things?” He said and went inside to change.

I sat there wondering about wilful amnesia which makes people forget things, both vital and petty. I imagined continents between us submerged in snow. I thought about our lives forming ill defined concentric circles around each other. 

That night of the equinox, I inched closer to him and kissed his neck. He stared at me baffled. It made me feel victorious. Despite all his words, how like a child he was. I smiled and ruffled his hair. “I don’t understand you,” he said. I kissed him a name and he did not even purr. There were twenty-three thousand stars on our paths. Each a distinct hurdle, each of a different dimension. 

Our cat howled throughout the night. Next morning we found scratch marks on the walls and on our skin.

There are things which hurt. Which grow slowly and fester into an unrecoverable wound. They usually begin with the smallest of actions and gain gigantic proportions. In the end, one ends up wondering how one could survive it all. My husband and I had not been talking for over a month. I do not really remember the fight, but I do remember the days leading up to it, when every moment seemed to erupt like a precarious volcano. I also remember the days following it. Days and nights of endless weeping, starving, and dizziness. Then came the numbness, insomnia, and the robotic movements perpetuating daily chores. Finally, we stopped caring.

One would think I had lost all hope and had hardened my heart. But that was, alas, a perfectly crafted illusion. Every night I would still want to hear his heavy steps plodding his way into our bedroom and get inside the covers and put his chilly fingers on my thigh. That was the signal of the eventual intimacy which had become so loathsome to me. Now I couldn’t help expecting it and was surprised to find myself actually missing his ceaseless snores. 

I had a dream that day. I was rolling on a lush green meadow. East to west, my skin touching shades of green as I rolled. I could see him as a tiny speck on the other end. He was sitting on the grass, watching the sky change colour. As I rolled towards him, I gradually diminished in size and became spherical. My limbs and edges curved into a round, cornerless, homogenous mass. As I rolled towards him, I picked up the contours of the river, the undulations of the earth. I flashed red and blue and green and brown. I was a wet grassy mud ball with boundless hope. I rolled towards him as a tiny ball of glee. He picked me up as a dust bunny and closed his fist. I felt myself disintegrate into his fingers, pass through his skin and circulate as blood through his various organs. As he opened his fist, only the waxy shell remained and he puffed it away into the wind rustling the soft grass. I had no recognizable features anymore. I floated in the wind around him and swam in his blood. 

We would go about our daily routine with a total disregard of the other’s existence. We would make our own food, coffee, tea; be out of each other’s way. I would sometimes watch him secretly on the pretext of chopping vegetables. He would be busy sawing up more wood for those insane toy figurines of his. His shirt, hair and eyelashes would be covered with sawdust. I remembered the smell of his fingers and the guilty pleasure of his eyes. 

The other day I dreamt that I was caught in an unexpected downpour. I remember I was walking in my red coat and boots, probably humming, smiling, thinking of him, when it felt as if somebody turned a bucket full of water on my head. It froze me. Nonplussed I observed people scattering like ants. I ran under one of the sheds and watched the raindrops create rainbows on the street. Suddenly a pair of big strong hands grabbed me from behind and pulled me inside the dark empty shop. He pushed me against the wall while his hands slithered inside my shirt. His rough lips grazed my hair and my ears and my neck. In my dream I wondered what stopped me from screaming. I woke up feeling violated and nauseous. That feeling stayed with me throughout the day, like the disgusting aftertaste of vomit.

As I was walking home one evening, I was caught in a sudden downpour. I ran with the crowd and stood in front of a shop which had the “closed” sign dangling from its door. My boots had mud on them and I was troubled. Suddenly a pair of strong muscular arms pulled me from behind into the darkness of the shop. He pushed me against the wall and whispered into my ears, “Your red coat looks maroon when wet.”

I looked for my husband in the faces of the thousands of people I saw every day. I searched for him, our lost intimacy, and sighed. In the one hundredth beating of my heart, in the one millionth blinking of my eyelashes, I slowly lost myself and became him. It was him, then, who was walking home, him who got drenched in inexplicable winter rains, him who took shelter in front of the shop, and him whom the man grabbed. For once I would have liked to see the look of utter helplessness on my husband’s face when a stranger kissed his lips. 

One morning, probably during the sixth week of our non-communication, I woke up to find a small wooden figurine on the bed. It had been placed on his side of the bed. A tiny toy shepherd holding a mini flute in his hand. I picked it up wondering whether it was a truce. I decided to say nothing to him and waited for him to broach the matter. Whole day went by in anticipation. He kept himself busy among his blocks of wood, never bothering to glance in my direction. I smiled to myself thinking about his inflated ego and decided to drop the matter.  

That night in my dream I saw that tiny shepherd dancing with a flock of sheep around a bonfire. Slowly the sheep began to increase in size and the faces all merged together. I woke up cold and sweating profusely. On instinct I reached out for my husband on his side. Something hard touched my fingers. I switched on the bedside lamp. It was the tiny head of the shepherd figurine. Sawed off with perfection from the rest of the body. I took it between my thumb and forefinger and stared at it dumbfounded while my groggy brain wrestled to think straight. Was he trying to scare me into submission? But that was hardly his style. He would scream and throw a tantrum and then stop talking. This, however, was truly grotesque. I reached out for my glass of water and floating on it was the tiny leg of the shepherd. The scream choked my throat as I ran out of the bedroom. 

I saw him sitting of the sofa in the living room with his wooden figurines around him. He looked grey and hazy in that soft light. As I tiptoed near him he slowly turned and looked at me. There were gigantic sheep in his eyes. He was rolling his tongue and sucking something inside his mouth. “Baby,” he said, taking out the torso of the shepherd figurine from his mouth, “Want a taste?”

Contributor

Chaandreyi Mukherjee

Dr. Chaandreyi Mukherjee has pursued her Ph.D. from Jamia Millia Islamia. She is working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Vivekananda College, University of Delhi. She is an avid reader and a book reviewer on Instagram (@paperback.girl).

Acknowledgments

The banner image is from Shoeb Dastagir‘s painting “Strawberries and Cream“. We reproduce it here with his kind permission. Shoeb’s paintings would probably be classified as magic realist by experts whose job it is to classify such things. In the artist’s own words:

“I give form to things that are intangible like atmosphere, mood & submission. I get my inspiration from nature and the profound silence of creation. Silence in nature speaks through to me .

My paintings combine pictures from imaginary worlds intermingled with whimsical characters and dream like sequences which border on fantasy and mystic dreams. As an artist I work towards developing work of art that intrigues and speak to you at the same time. My work invites the viewer to move into my world of fantasy and delve into beauty that I see in my world.”

Shoeb lives and works in Bangalore. More of his works can be seen here: A Little On The Wild Side.

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