I watch the tide of a new morning in the pallor of the curtains against the pane of the bedroom window. Except for the birds on the mango tree outside and an occasional vehicle that honks on the stray dogs, there is no sound.
Nothing has changed while we slept.
A morning person, I look with disappointment at Tina, the wife I once loved. The wife I am trying to love again. But we were noisy during the night. And drunk. There is no better way to find enthusiasm in our marriage as we re-knit the frayed threads of our lives as a couple.
In this ten-by-ten bedroom, we made love on the floor before climbing on the bed, panting, unconcerned about the noise we were making: moans, thrusts and even wilder sounds. This alcohol-aided ritual, taken to its expected conclusion, we exploded, not prepared to listen to the inner voice saying that we had faked yet again. Another day of trying-to-be-in-love ticked off the calendar. The present can be irrelevant when you focus on the future—it made no difference to us.
In the semi-dark room I bring my face closer to observe the alluring calm on Tina’s face. I brush my lips against her cold cheek and pause as she moans, turns over, a portion of blanket flowing to the floor. She lies motionless in her new position for a few seconds, before the rhythm of her breathing returns. Her naked back, the curve of which I imagine, for the millionth time.
I take a long breath and discover the smell of our sweat.
We had been in love once, not too long ago—so the harder we try, the sooner we hope to bounce back and rekindle the lost pulse. This belief is our shared excuse, and it seems to be working, somewhat, at least for the time being.
I let the present fade away. The unhappiness has seeped out of me. Though the day I had discovered Tina with another man—I remember that frozen moment four months ago—I had been mad.
My reaction, after the shock had subsided, was to shout—she was just two feet from me, — ‘How could you?’
She stared at the floor and began to cry, but why? Repenting felt meaningless to me. As I held her face, my palms hot and shaking with anger, that late afternoon, she just closed her eyes like she was trying to shut out the present.
I had demanded an explanation, and when I didn’t get one, I had slapped her—the wife I loved so much—and she fell sideways without protest. I slid down the wall to the floor beside her. Half an hour later I barged out the house, banging the door loudly.
My favourite pub had beckoned as I walked past—but I didn’t have the appetite for familiar faces, same furniture and recognizable paintings on the walls. This was the place where I had proposed to Tina and it was almost like our second home.
Instead, I got into a taxi and barked at the driver when he asked for my destination. Drivers are wise people; they adjust quickly. The taxi meandered Delhi’s roads, destination-less. For the first time I felt unaware of my course in life.
The taxi, in its crisscross, was on the road I drove every morning to the office. At a traffic signal I recognized the beggar. Almost every day I would roll the window down and given him a five-rupee coin, unless the traffic signal turned green and the cars behind honked like it was the end-of-the-world. I didn’t know his name, and until now, had thought of him as another unfortunate soul.
That evening, however, I was jealous of the beggar. I didn’t give him a coin. He was confused, because he seemed to have recognized me, but all for a second and then he moved, muttering abuses under his breath, my last two years of charity forgotten.
‘Do you know how long I’ve been married?’ I asked the driver. We were on a lonely road and the hum of the air-conditioner was inflating my head, like a bubble preparing to explode.
When he didn’t react, I answered my own question, ‘Two years.’
An hour later the taxi stopped in front of a door garlanded with twinkling lights, as if it were the venue of a rock-star’s wedding reception
And inside were unfamiliar faces, beer that tasted bitter though it was my favourite Kingfisher brand. But after 10 minutes, my anger soothed somewhat; the music was loud and there were many girls on the dance floor. The next morning I awoke beside a naked stranger, her face covered in hair, hand on my chest, in a hotel room, unable to recall anything—a form of short-term amnesia. I must have been drunk.
I washed and confronted my swollen face in the bathroom. A pair of red eyes stared back. The stench from my mouth made my nose wrinkle. I had cheated on Tina. A bath didn’t help and neither did the fact that the girl had vanished with my wallet by the time I was done.
‘I don’t care,’ I shouted.
The days that followed the incident dulled the pain. It made Tina seem a lesser evil. I sensed her guilt as I began to repent.
But we remained short of reconciliation, ignoring each other’s presence in the same house. I didn’t kiss her when I left for office. When she asked me what I would eat for dinner as I returned home, I discovered my hunger for her cooking gone. We looked at a certain point above the other person’s heads when we spoke, only when necessary, or we stared at the furniture.
We didn’t make love and, after a few days, I shifted to the spare bedroom. I considered numerous times asking her about the other man, but couldn’t. I weighed my own drunken encounter and concluded that it didn’t match what she had done, and that left me more irritated. After a week, we separated. I told her one morning that I couldn’t stay in the house anymore. She stayed quiet. I left.
This morning I lock her inside our apartment and will come back later, like every day, to find her still there, waiting for me. The padlock is small, and rusty on all sides, but I know it can withstand her pulls and pushes—unless she shouts for the attention of other men. But of course she won’t trust other men. She has promised. It is easy to believe someone who has lost your trust but is trying hard to win it back. She has work to do, and her effort is genuine. I just know it.
Is it time for me to tell her about my revenge? No, my inner voice says, unrepentant.
I leave her like that—locked—because she asks me to, because she wants to mourn her straying and because she wants to concentrate on her commitment to me. I oblige, each day, abandoning her temporarily.
I enter the creaky lift and exit into the early morning sun. My eyes brim but adjust before the tears spill over. Stray dogs look at me and pause before wagging their tails as I ignore them and head towards my car.
Tina is happy when I return. She is waiting in the small ten-by-ten living room that connects the ten-by-ten bedroom we sleep in. The kitchen stares at me through a door that can’t be closed due to the refrigerator standing in the way. I smile and ask her to share her secret.
‘I am pregnant.’ She laughs, claps, and runs into my arms. I smell a mother in her hair playfully tickling my ears, until I sneeze. Moments later, I push her away.
‘Aren’t you happy?’ she asks later in the evening and I say, ‘Of course I am.’ She refuses the whiskey I offer. So I continue, my thoughts helter-skelter.
I wonder long after she has slept if I am the father. I do a quick calculation of the dates. It’s a relief. No, maybe more a burden.
I think of the day when that stranger had opened the door. He was inside my house, hours before I was expected to return, something I had never done earlier. He was half-dressed and his eyes widened in alarm at the sight of me. He knew who I was. I thought I was at the wrong door. But when I caught a glimpse of my wife as she appeared in the background, her clothes thrown on in haste, hair dishevelled, I realized I was home.
We froze in our positions, the three of us, and it was after a few seconds that Tina reacted. She dashed out of sight for the bedroom—like a desperate thief about to be caught in the act. I didn’t move. The stranger disappeared, too, and reappeared after a few seconds with his shirt and shoes, brushing past me out the front door.
I waited five minutes, standing on the doormat, inches from the entrance, staring at the empty living room. It was our house and yet it wasn’t anymore. The blue sofa—my wife had insisted on the blue colour—and the books on the rack stared back at me.
I closed the door and turned away.
I had studied in an all-boys school. When I was in the eighth grade, a classmate—bigger than me, his vocabulary of Hindi expletives more colourful and depraved than mine—passed a lewd comment at a girl on the cricket grounds and I objected as the girl cried and ran away.
The big boy thrashed me. Others—about seven or eight, stronger than me—who were playing with us, took turns hitting me. They tore my clothes, bashed me with their cricket bats, punched and kicked me as I lay on the ground. I had become an insect they wanted to torture. I was hospitalized for a week.
When I returned, the leader of the pack met me and pleaded sorry. He put his arm around me and rewarded me with the dirtiest expletive I had ever heard in my life—a word I didn’t want to hear again.
Next day I took him deep inside the jungle near our school. Since he was stronger, he was amused at what I was up to and remained at ease. But I had prepared well. When we reached the spot I had intended, I pushed him into a stream. I regret it to this day. Should violence be dealt with more violence? Can a wrong be righted by another wrong?
I thought it was best to talk to the stranger I’d discovered my wife with. I found out where he lived, followed him and summoned him one evening to a coffee shop to let him know I wouldn’t hurt him because I believed in nonviolence. He promised to show, but didn’t. I never saw him again.
My parents were vegetarian. I didn’t like the idea initially. At school—a Christian missionary outside Delhi—some of the children came from meat-eating families. They spoke English with made up accents and read Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. I wanted to be like them, so when one of them offered his chicken sandwich one morning during recess, I took a bite. It felt chewy in my mouth; I was not sure if I liked it. But I told him it was good. Later, I vomited in the bathroom. I felt guilty and I told my mother that night. She said I had committed a sin. I vowed I would never eat meat in my life. Humans have to pay for their sins, she had whispered.
‘It’s karma. You reap what you sow. If you are lucky, you get the punishment in the same birth and if you are not, like most people, you are reborn as an insect as punishment to repay for your deeds.’
Was Tina’s behavior my punishment?
After three months we decided to talk. I fixed our meeting at an unfamiliar restaurant filled with strangers. We ordered drinks that we didn’t like—vodka and orange juice—and asked for food we loathed—Chinese noodles and a thin curry with soggy vegetables we couldn’t pronounce the name of—and we pretended to be meeting for the first time. It was my idea.
While we had been staying at separate houses, I had read a few books: self-help stuff, the kind that guarantees success. I didn’t read them because I needed help; I read them because I wanted to give the books a chance. It was an absurd excuse. After reading three, I got the gist in one of them, a 200-pager that advised just one word: Talk. And so we talked. She pleaded guilty. I tried to mention my drunken revenge, but couldn’t. We decided to live under the same roof and commit to a new beginning.
It’s another morning, and as I lay awake listening to birds outside, the curtains turn pale. Down on the road a speeding car honking at stray dogs has crashed into another. Now the dogs start barking.
I feel Tina’s cold hand crawl on my chest. I shiver, and turn to find her awake. There is resignation in her smile, or is it hopefulness? I can’t tell. She slides close and I cuddle her with a gentle pull until she’s right next to me. To overcome the awkwardness of the moment, I try to smile.
‘You are up early?’ I say, after a pause, avoiding her eyes. This is my time and I want her to go back to sleep.
‘I have decided to leave.’ Her voice is trembling and I am alarmed. Leave for where, I think.
I don’t ask, as she continues, ‘I am sorry for what I have done. We will be friends, won’t we?’ There are tears in her eyes. I feel guilty. I think of an excuse, but fail—my lips remain stuck, my eyes are of stone and my mind is a lump of dead protein. Tina gets up, kisses my numb face and goes away. I let her. I don’t want to, but I let her.
My hands and forehead are feverish, but I revel in the discomfort, as it brings hurt, but not from Tina anymore. It’s myself I can’t conquer. Our mistakes were equal, but she told me the circumstances, the accidental straying, while I remained mute. Equal crime, unequal repentance.
I hear the approaching of an ambulance; the dogs bark again. The siren ceases under the building. I imagine rescue workers taking the injured people. Or are they dead? Can the ambulance reach the hospital fast enough for them to survive? I wait—hear shouts, stare at the ceiling. The siren howls to life and then fades as the ambulance moves away.
Despite all that has happened between Tina and I, I think of our first kiss, first sex, the marriage, our first everything.
I get out of bed, call Tina’s mother who sounds surprised to hear my voice. I dial Tina’s friend. I wonder if I should check the airport, the bus stand or the railway station. The panic rises. There are too many options if one wants to escape. I call our travel agent, but he hasn’t heard from her. Why would she be so obvious? I am annoyed at her smartness but only for a second. Later it all feels ridiculous.
Not knowing what to do, I head to the front door.
And there she is: sitting on the edge of the blue sofa in the living room, the cheeks wet, her suitcase by her side.