What It Was Like (Part 1)

Incomplete writing exercise.

Swalpa adjust maadi. I will finish it.

* * *

We knew winter had come when the sky changed. The weather didn’t seem to care about the seasons, but the sky took on the clear, translucent hue of lightly stained glass and the clouds were white puffs out of a child’s painting. A lemony metallic smell hung in the air, making our mouths water.

School dragged itself to the edge of the Christmas holidays, teachers and students alike paying minimal attention to the important topics of study and maximal attention to the even more important topic of who would buy a gift for who this year, and what, and how much, and what it meant.

We kids devised our own rate card: under a hundred bucks was a courtesy and meant either thank you or JLT (Just Like That, no explanation needed). From there to five hundred was hopeful but fat chance. Anything higher was they’ll be humping by new year’s eve. None of us were very sure what exactly humping entailed, but it sounded fascinating.

Then the holidays were upon us and we responded like flowers pining for the sun: we woke earlier, swallowed breakfast unchewed and tumbled out of the house in a tangle of sun-browned arms and legs. Haircuts would not be had for weeks, for who had time to waste in the barber’s chair?

The sea beckoned and we responded instinctively. By 8 AM we were in the water, dolphins frolicking  until long after sunset. Even then, it was only the semi-scientific fear of sharks hunting by night that drove us back to shore.

Appa, whose job it was to bring us home for lunch, likened his struggles to pulling teeth in a futile effort to shame. He’d stand on the shore calling to us to come back, as though we were faithless sailors leaving our unfortunate lovers behind at another nameless port. Sometimes it took an hour before we were dripping attendance on the sand beside him.

I always wondered why Appa, a fine swimmer from a boy, never came into the water to drag us out. It was only after he died – at the wake, in fact – that one of the old aunties told us the story: he’d dived in to save the life of a floundering friend, saved the friend, and lost his veshti and his dignity at the same time.

This winter morning Manu and I were at the beach earlier than usual, because we hadn’t gone home the night before. Instead we’d dug three holes in the sand, started a fire in the middle one, and curled up like puppies to sleep under the stars. Now the two of us lay on our backs in the shallows, feasting on clams and coconut water. It’s only now both my parents are dead that I will admit the clams were gritty.

We lay there drowsing for what felt like several hours when a shadow fell over us, making us jump.

‘Appa!’

Reckless disregard is easy when you know your father is in an easy chair on the porch a mile away sipping coffee and frowning. It’s another thing altogether when he’s standing over you with the tail end of his veshti in his hand and no expression on his face.

‘Both of you come home with me now,’ he said and immediately walked away.

We looked at each other, puzzled. Perhaps Appa was trying a new tactic to bring us home, or perhaps it was only that since we weren’t all the way out past the breakers, he had no need to entreat us to come back to land. But his face was frightening.

Appa should have been a mime, his face was so flexible. We often tried to guess the newspaper story he was reading by watching his facial contortions. Now this same rubber face was as unmarked as a rock undiscovered by lovesick teenagers.

We scrambled to our feet and rushed after him.

‘What happened, Appa? Are we going to Amama’s house?’ asked Manu. The only thing that ever shook my equable Appa was an impending visit to his mother-in-law. Appa didn’t answer, but strode across the sand and up the boardwalk to where he’d parked the car.

This was odd, too. We never drove to the beach; it was too close, and anyway Amma didn’t like us getting sand on the seats. But this time Appa unlocked the car without a word, opened the back door and nodded to us to get in.

Manu and I were both seriously worried by now; neither of us had ever seen our father awake and silent for so many consecutive minutes. Finally, as the engine put-put-putted to life, I asked the unthinkable: ‘Has something happened to Amma?’

Appa didn’t speak until he’d parked the car outside the house, carefully negotiating (with tongue sticking out) the uncovered storm water drain that ran parallel to the compound wall. Then he turned off the engine, turned to us and said, ‘Amma’s gone.’

‘Gone?’ Tears sprang up in Manu’s eyes. ‘She died?’

For the first time Appa smiled, involuntarily. ‘No. She left us and went away.’

It was my turn now. ‘But why?’

‘I guess she didn’t want to be Amma any more,’ said Appa, and got out without another word.

We had questions, lots of questions, but Appa would say no more. He made us some coffee, took his newspaper and went back to his easy chair. Manu and I talked in hushed voices, as though there had actually been a death in the house and the ghost, still walking, might overhear. Once in a while we peeked out at the porch. Appa was sitting motionless, his coffee and newspaper untouched, staring at nothing. He sat there for a long time.

Manu and I opened all Amma’s forbidden cupboards and closets. Appa was right, she hadn’t wanted to be Amma any more. Her jeans, t-shirts and flip-flops were gone, all her heavy silk saris and high-heeled slippers had been left behind. In the kitchen, everything was untouched. In the bathroom, the lipsticks were absent and the leaky bottle of Shilpa Bindi had left a lonely bloodstain on the glass shelf.

At last we climbed onto her side of our parents’ bed and lay there with our noses buried in her pillow. We didn’t touch each other, didn’t hug or hold hands. It was almost as if touching would cause one or both of us to disappear as Amma had done. Manu cried silently, his tears soaking into the pillow foam, and after a while I cried too, but quietly so Appa wouldn’t hear.

Lunchtime and tea came and went and still we lay there in silence with snot-filled noses and red-rimmed eyes. It was very late when Appa came in, pulled us apart and lay in between with his arms around us. Nobody spoke; he kissed us gently on our foreheads and we slept.

We woke the next morning to the sounds of rattling utensils and crockery. In the kitchen, Appa had donned the ugly white I’m the mother, that’s why! apron (that Amma hated and never wore) and was making dosas and coffee. He smiled when he saw us and said good morning.

‘Appa was joking!’ whispered Manu, suddenly hopeful. I shook my head.

We sat around the table and ate, Appa making dad jokes as usual, and when we were finished he said he would take us somewhere new for a surprise. Amma wasn’t mentioned. Manu and I were confused. Was Appa joking, or wasn’t he? Why wasn’t he sad any more?

We put on swimsuits and shorts at Appa’s direction and got into the car. This time we drove for three hours, southward along the river and then up into the hills. Appa sang along to the radio at the top of his voice. Eventually Manu, in the passenger seat, forgot himself and joined in. I sat silent, not really hearing or seeing. Appa seemed to have forgotten about me as comprehensively as he had forgotten Amma – not once in those three hours did he speak to me.

Finally we were on the headland. Appa maneuvered the car, snail-like, around the rocks, until we reached the cliffs. A hundred and fifty feet down was a tiny crescent beach with rocks on one end and a palm grove at the other. So narrow was the tide line that the breakers were less than fifteen yards from the shore.

‘Cabo!’ exclaimed Appa, as though he’d arranged this paradise with his own hands. ‘Come on, let’s get down there.’

He hoisted Manu on to his shoulders and held out his hand to me. My eyes stung with sudden hot tears and I turned to look at the waves so he wouldn’t see. Amma didn’t want to be Amma, Appa didn’t want to remember and I didn’t want to be here. There was a tightness in my chest that overwhelmed me and I sat down on the rocky ground, unable to control my legs.

Appa lowered Manu back on to the ground and squatted beside me. It was only then, with his warm hand gentle on my back, that he broke down. I had seen Appa cry once before, when my Anamma died. Manu wasn’t born then. For him, Appa was the big strong giant who kept us from hurt. It was inconceivable that the giant could himself be wounded. Inconceivable and frightening. Manu started to bawl.

That made me angry. ‘You’re not sad,’ I shouted, ‘you’re just a scaredy-cat! You’re only afraid there’ll be nobody to make your food and buy you toys! I hate you!’

Even as the words spilled out I felt a pang of fear. Appa would be upset at me, Appa wouldn’t want to be Appa any more. He’d get in the car and drive away, leaving me here on the desolate headland with Manu. I’d have to be mother and father and teacher and doctor and nurse and cook and playmate for my little brother. And who would look after me?

But it didn’t happen. Appa shook himself like a wet dog, wiped his face on his sleeve and stood up. ‘Everyone’s scared, babush,’ he said gently. ‘Come, let’s go down to the water.’ He took Manu in his arms again and smiled at me. Manu flung his arms around Appa’s neck and sobbed into his shoulder. We walked across the headland to the rocky steps some unknown adventurers had carved into the side of the cliff and began the slow descent to the beach.

It took us half an hour to get down. By then Manu’s tears had dried, though he resisted Appa’s attempts to get him to climb on his own. Thorny bushes on either side of the steps and loose gravel kept our attention. We spoke little except the essentials of care: Watch out for that plant, Be careful of that rock.

At last we were on the beach. I turned and looked up at the cliff and wondered why I hadn’t just walked off the edge into the welcoming anonymous warmth of the sea. Falling that far would surely have killed me, and right then I wanted to die so the pain would stop. Either that, or curl up in Amma’s lap like a kitten and forget about the rest of the world.

It wasn’t until a week later, when our Amma-less life had begun to feel like the new normal, that the thought occurred to me for the first time: was it something I had done that made her leave?

 

 

 

 

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Note: This is an incomplete writing exercise with which I have become bored halfway. It has a beginning and an end but not much of a middle, and may develop into something with more meat at some point – or not. Any resemblance to real life situations is only to provide dramatic context. Posting anyway for what it’s worth, and to attract all the literary criticism it so richly deserves.

———-

Anita’s tears had slowed to a trickle when the doorbell rang. She looked at her watch: 9.22 PM. Only guests and delivery boys called at that hour, and neither was expected. Anyway, she had received no warning phone call from building security.

Probably someone who’d got the wrong door, or an overfriendly neighbour with kheer or biriyani to share. Anita usually ignored unexpected rings, whether doorbell or telephone. She returned to her book.

Nothing at all happened for two pages; then there were three quiet knocks.

“Anita?”

The soft voice was familiar, but indistinct. If only she could have sat in the balcony as usual, instead of in the living room! The sounds of the building were muffled there by the wind and the owls hooting. But it was raining too hard. She sighed, wiped her face on her sleeve, put the book aside and went to the door.

There was a peephole, but the passage outside was invariably too dark to discern any more than vague shapes and heights. This visitor wasn’t visible at all. Perhaps they’ve gone away, she thought, relieved, and began to turn away when the voice spoke again.

“Annie? Open the door, please?”

Shyam stood dripping on her doormat, his hair, face and shirt soaked with rain. His face was expressionless. She hadn’t seen him for a month; a horrible month in which pleasurable memory turned to nostalgia, nostalgia to vague longing, and vague longing to anxious desire so intense that the ache in her belly kept her awake at night.

At last in a fury of hurt she had deleted his messages and phone number, though this kept her from having the last word. She realised this too late and smiled wryly that even she of the infinite memory no longer bothered to memorise phone numbers. Lucky we don’t have any friends in common, she thought. Imagine how it would be to call someone and ask for Shyam’s number because I want to break up with him.

Break up… as though we were a couple… which we weren’t...

At this point Anita generally burst into tears at what might have been, almost was, and never would be, and allowed herself a good ten minutes of self-pity, patting herself on the head and saying, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” over and over until the crying stopped or her nose was too stuffed up to breathe. Okay meant that the feeling would pass: Shyam would fade from her life and consciousness, become a memory to smile wistfully at on some bright beautiful morning.

Okay never meant he would ring her doorbell on a rainy night and stand there soaking wet waiting in silence to be allowed in.

Tonight the rain had started to fall just as the sun was setting, and the clouds were all purple and golden. The city glowed ruby red in the indistinct light, and Anita had sat in the balcony, entranced and empty-headed, for a long time before the wet and the cold forced her back indoors. She lay down on the bed with its pristine sheets, listened to the rattle of water against window, and imagined what it would be like to have him there with her, until the tears came again.

This time she exceeded her self-imposed quota, and it was twenty minutes before she rose and went into the other room to read, choosing a juicy and familiar murder mystery and a seat from which she couldn’t see the bed. Still the sniffles came; if the doorbell had not rung at that precise moment, perhaps she would have cried again.

Now here he was, and Anita was at a loss. Her mental movie script wasn’t like this. Irreverently a thought came into her mind: What’s my motivation for this scene? Still silent, she pulled the door open, stood aside and inclined her head to indicate that Shyam should come in.

Shyam shook himself all over like a wet dog, scattering water everywhere, and stepped into the house. Anita shut the door behind him and went off wordlessly to fetch a towel while he took off his shoes and socks.

She watched while he rubbed off the water from his clothes and head and wrapped the towel around his shoulders. Neither had spoken since he entered the house. Shyam lifted his head and they stared at each other for a few seconds. Then he stepped forward suddenly and put his arms around her. She did not resist as his grip tightened and he pushed her head down on his shoulder.

They stood like that for a long time, not speaking, not moving. Shyam’s eyes were closed as he held Anita tight and inhaled deeply the green apple scent of her hair. Unlike her, he was not inclined to fantasise; and while he had wondered on his way here how their meeting would play out, he had not conjured up a dramatic scene or rehearsed dialogues in his head. Now that he was here, holding her, he found his uncertainty gone.

This is where he was meant to be.

Shyam had been in love with the woman from the office, with whom he spoke online for hours every day. Their first and only meeting had been at an official dinner with a dozen other people, when they were seated together at the end of the table. Shy and unaccustomed to social occasions, Shyam sat silent and smiling until she asked his opinion about the new IT security policy. From there they progressed to traffic, politics, films, music, books, plays, current events. She was intelligent and thoughtful, seemed genuinely interested in his opinions. By the end of the evening, he felt he had made a friend.

She was flying back to the US early the next morning, and Shyam squirmed in a welter of impatience until the next Monday evening when she appeared online. Still he hesitated – suppose she was only being polite? Suppose she only spoke to him because he happened to be sitting beside her? He was just about to shut his computer down and go home when the chat window flashed. “Hi, how are you?”

Shyam almost swallowed his tongue. His heart was hammering in his chest, the blood pounding in his ears. “I’m fine. How was your flight? Got enough sleep?”

He ended up missing the last bus and had to call a taxi.

For nearly three years, the evening hours were the best part of Shyam’s workday. They talked about their lives, joked, exchanged office gossip, confided in each other. Shyam had never been in love before, but it seemed to him that an emotion as strong as this couldn’t be mistaken. Although he hadn’t confessed his feelings, he was certain she must already know. How could she not? On weekends he reread their chat archive, looking for a clue, however subtle, that she felt the same way. She seemed friendly, affectionate, even loving – but not, he had to admit, in love. At least not in the same way that he was.

But what did he know of women? He told himself that his inexperience was all that held him back. Of course she loved him: she had been talking to him for hours on end every day for three years.

Finally she said she would be coming to India and asked if he had time to meet. Now, he thought, I have to tell her now. “Before you get here, I have some news for you,” he wrote. “It’s important. I’ll call.”

Shyam waited until the office was empty, went to a meeting room and locked himself in against nosy security guards and housekeeping staff. Receiver in hand he sat, eyes closed, for nearly five minutes, listening to the sound of his breath. There was a ping from his computer. “Are you calling or what?”

He dialed and she answered almost immediately. “Congratulations, Shyam!” she said.

“What?” he said, startled.

“You’re getting married too!”

If their first online conversation had started with a bang, their final conversation would end with a whimper. Shyam found himself making up the story as he went along. Yes, it is a lovely coincidence both of us getting married at the same time. Yes, it is such a pity we can’t attend each other’s weddings. No, I didn’t know you were living together for so long. Oh, are you quitting the job? Yes, he will enjoy a traditional Hindu wedding. Yes, she is a wonderful girl. No, I don’t know why she said yes to me. Yes, I am a lucky guy.

“I’ll see you soon, okay? Before our D-Days!”

Shyam hung up and sat motionless for a long time. He had thought having one’s heart broken would hurt, but this was more like someone was holding his head underwater. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t hear, and there was a tightness in his chest that was at once not at all painful and excruciatingly so. Finally he shut off the lights, picked up his bag and went home.

She sent the wedding invitation to his office; called him, emailed, sent him messages. He ignored them all. The company had always given its employees the flexibility to work from home, but Shyam usually went in anyway, saying he preferred to work at work. Now he seldom appeared in the office, and never smiled. Always thin, he now appeared gaunt. Colleagues expressed concern, and he waved them off. Friends invited him out; he declined all invitations, lying in bed staring blankly at the TV. Only when he was working was he able to concentrate his mind.

One night, months later, he was puttering aimlessly online when an advertisement for an online dating web site popped up. Almost without conscious thought he clicked on it and signed up. Shyam had never confided in anyone about his aborted romance. I’m not ready, maybe I’ll never be ready. But I can’t live like this.

The web site threw up matches. Lots of matches. He read through the profiles with indifference. Halfway down the page was Anita’s. He stared at the photograph. Her face, looking at something to the left of the camera, was partially in shadow, and though she was smiling, Shyam felt it was a sad smile. I wonder who took the picture. She seems lonely. Someone like me, he thought. Someone who’ll understand. On an impulse, he sent her a message: “Hello. I’m an online dating virgin. Does this thing work?”

Two hours passed before she replied. “Hello back,” she wrote, “So am I. And yes, it does.”

This time there was no swallowing of tongue, no hammering of heart or thundering of blood. Anita’s manner and humour invited confidences, and Shyam spoke to her simply and naturally, as though he had known her many years. As before, the evening hours became his solace and they exchanged hundreds of messages. This time, he decided, he wouldn’t let diffidence stop him. I’m not in love. But I need a friend and I don’t want to go on like this.

Three weeks in, he asked: “Want to get out of here and use phones instead?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

But into the wild frontier of telephonic conversation Shyam found himself strangely hesitant to go. From sending messages on a web site they graduated to sending text messages. Shyam celebrated this step forward by rechristening her ‘Annie’; she made no remark. The tone was from the first light, funny and affectionate. Anita seemed a gentle, rather shy person with not a lot of self-esteem. She apologised constantly. Anything he asked she answered, with humour and apparent honesty; anything she asked him she prefaced with the comment that he was at liberty to decline. He felt safe in her company.

A week later, in the middle of a conversation about the best way to make rasam, he couldn’t contain himself any longer. He was still sure he wasn’t in love with Anita, but she felt more real to him than much of his life had for the past several months.

“Can we meet?”

And so they had, at what turned out to be the most inappropriate restaurant with too-loud music, too-fancy food, too-expensive drinks. They spent nearly six hours there, sitting close beside each other. When he laid his hand on hers, surprising himself with his boldness and quaking inwardly, she twined her fingers with his as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Still, Shyam noticed that she almost never looked at him, and never into his eyes. He spent a lot of time that evening studying her face. She smiled constantly, but it was an absent smile. Her comments and answers were prompt and often witty, but he wondered more than once where her thoughts really were.

They stayed until closing time. By then, he had put his arm around her, and she had rested her head on his shoulder in a fluid, spontaneous gesture of trust that was unexpectedly moving. Shyam offered to walk her home. They held hands for that half-mile, and when they reached her apartment building she didn’t break stride, just continued to walk, his hand in hers, into the lobby and up to the lift. “I should call a cab,” he said, panicked. Anita didn’t speak, merely smiled and shook her head as the lift door opened.

They went up in silence, walked to her front door. Her grasp was gentle, and Shyam wondered why he didn’t just jerk his hand away. He felt certain she wouldn’t pull him back if he did, but he was disinclined to leave her. Silently she unlocked the door and stepped inside, and he followed. Anita shut the door behind him and then, to his shock, leaned forward and kissed very gently the corner of his mouth.

Shyam’s panic intensified. It wasn’t a sexual kiss, or even an invitation; that much he was sure. But what was it? This was a woman he was meeting for the first time. He wasn’t even particularly attracted to her, though he felt unaccountably affectionate and protective of someone he barely knew.

Anita let go of his hand and went into the kitchen. “Water? Coffee? Tea? Wine?” she called. Shyam got a grip on himself.

“Just water, thanks.”

She came out to him with a glass in her hand and watched him drain it. He handed the glass back, and when she reached out to take it he pulled her to him with his free hand and kissed her with more self-assurance than he really felt.

They sat on the sofa, holding each other and kissing occasionally, for what felt like hours before Anita looked at her watch, sighed and reached up to turn off the light. “Come on,” she said, “Bed.”

In a daze Shyam stood and followed her into the bedroom where she resumed kissing him, her intent this time unmistakably sexual. This excited him too and he began to respond with rather more enthusiasm than he had shown thus far. In all the hours he had been in her house, he had spoken only one sentence. Still he had no words, but it didn’t seem to matter. Wherever she wanted to take him he now felt ready to go.

When Shyam thought back on that night, he never remembered his shyness or the fact that they never got very far. Instead he recalled how sweet and loving she was, how she held him, stroked his hair, kissed his temple and placed her palm against his heart as though she were trying to transmit the intensity of her feelings to him through his skin.

That had been the start of their nameless relationship. Shyam never called Anita, even after their night together. Somehow it seemed to him inappropriate, even blasphemous, to speak to her on the telephone. When they weren’t together, they continued to exchange messages. Her manner changed only slightly: she was occasionally flirtatious where before she had been funny but direct.

Eight days passed and he asked to see her again. “Come directly here,” she replied. “We’ll find something to eat in a better place.”

They went to a grubby little restaurant in the street outside whose proprietor, astonished at real live customers rather than telephone orders, inexpertly wiped one of the greasy tables with an equally greasy dishcloth. Anita apologised over and over, as though she were personally responsible for the grime. “The food’s good,” she kept saying.

Shyam laughed. “The dirtier the place, the better the food,” he said, watching her face. Her answering smile seemed genuine, but again he felt that she wasn’t actually there. What is it with this woman?

After dinner – good food, as Anita had promised – they went back up to her flat. This time there was shyness but no hesitation. This time he was sure.

Without conscious planning they started seeing each other every weekend. Shyam never again asked her out, Anita never invited him over. It was as though Thursday afternoon exerted some unknown but irresistible force that directed their thoughts towards each other. Every Friday evening Shyam stood outside her door wondering how he had got there. Food was secondary – sometimes they didn’t eat at all.

They spoke only rarely when they were in bed together. Anita sometimes whispered his name, so softly that he strained to hear it. When they were apart they spoke not at all – he still preferred to text, and she showed no sign of wanting to change the mode of communication. Shyam was frequently amused at the irony of being naked before her while being unwilling to let her hear his voice.

For six months life continued during the working week, Anita became Shyam’s Friday night, the memory of her his Saturday afternoon. Though they exchanged messages every night, Shyam felt he had hit a wall with her and knew her no better now than he had when first they met. It was hard to put his finger on why; Anita behaved exactly the same as she always had. She isn’t really with me and I need some time off, he decided, and without a word of explanation he shut her out as he had the woman from the office.

Anita had in fact fallen deeply in love with Shyam almost from the first. This had very little to do with him personally – she was a lonely, shy woman with a great gift for affection, qualities that tend to attract the worst sort of men. She had kept away for many years until Shyam came along and all her pent-up love flowed over him in a torrent. Analysing her feelings, she had decided that while she loved Shyam, she didn’t care whether he loved her so long as he kept on seeing her. It was his warmth that she craved. She had tried her best to act casual, so as not to scare him off too soon.

And then inexplicably Shyam had subtracted himself from the equation.  I’ll get over it, she told herself. It will pass. I just have to wait it out.

Much as Shyam had done so many months before, Anita withdrew into herself and closed the door on the world. She spent hours sitting silent in her balcony staring as the gold-tinged clouds raced across the western sky. What were we to each other? Friends? Friends with benefits? Lovers? Nothing seemed to fit. Their relationship had stalled, in a way, after they had slept together the second time. They had no friends in common; their conversation became about events, not ideas; sex became almost the only reason for them to meet. But there had been such gentleness that the term friends, with or without benefits, seemed inadequate, the term lovers too cold and clinical.

That left Anita with a drought of answers and an oversupply of tears. The physical need of him tormented her but even more she missed the feeling of warmth and safety she got from being held in his arms with his lips against her forehead. An entire month without Shyam and her bewilderment turned to blind rage, though she knew she would forgive him everything if only he would come back.

And tonight he had come to her in the pouring rain, rung her bell, called her ‘Annie’. Tonight here he was, holding her tight (making her clothing as wet as his own, towel or not), as though the past month had never happened.

She raised her head. “You’ll catch cold,” she said. “I’ll make you some tea.”

Shyam smiled. “I’ll do it. I think I remember where everything is.” He gave her one last fierce kiss on her hair, released her and went to the kitchen, handing her the towel as he went.

Anita stood unmoving where he left her, holding the towel in her hands. She could hear, as though from a great distance, the sounds of Shyam clattering around her tiny kitchen, the saucepan being filled, the gas ring being lit, the cupboard being opened. She felt herself a creature of senses alone, reacting to the world instinctively without rational thought. Shyam was here. Shyam was here! Perhaps I should go help him, she thought vaguely, but she couldn’t bring herself to move.

At last she heard his footsteps coming back into the hall and saw, out of the corner of her eye, his hands setting down a steaming mug on the low table. He didn’t make tea for me, she thought idly.

“I’m so sorry, I’ve passed all my rain to you,” he said. “Let me dry you out.”

He took the towel from her unresisting hands and standing behind her, began to wipe her hair. The towel moved over her face and ears, gentle as Shyam always was, and Anita closed her eyes. When he had wiped her neck, he draped the towel loosely around her shoulders, put his left arm around her and pulled her back against him. He kissed her neck with more aggression than he had ever shown, but she fought the urge to open her eyes in surprise. Her neck arched and her head fell back against his shoulder.

Shyam kissed Anita’s neck again as roughly as before. His right arm came out from behind his back and cut her throat from left to right with her own chef’s knife as neatly as though he had been working at a halal butcher’s all his life. The towel fielded most of the spurting blood.

He let her body fall to the floor, covered her face and neck with the now blood-soaked towel, and washed himself at the sink.

Then he calmly drank the still hot tea, rinsed the mug and let himself out of the house.

Adventures in Online Dating III: All Good Things

Read Parts I and II here and here.

spoc
Image source: Jezebel Kraai, Flikr

It’s only human to put off facing the unpleasant, and I’ve been human for two weeks. Now to resume our regular Vulcanized service.

Live long and prosper, illogical Earthlings.

What are the lessons from the undersea adventures of comicthief? First and foremost, make like Bill Clinton and don’t inhale, especially if you’re into (sea)weed.

Nostalgia makes things look a lot better in the rearview mirror than they did in real life. Online dating and its aftermath are no exception.

First of all, I let go of my preconceived notion that the only people using online dating services are the socially inept, the desperate, the pimps soliciting business and the psychopaths looking for innocent victims to murder in dark alleys. The virtual world harbours all of these but there are also a great many nice, intelligent, thoughtful and humorous men that I’m sure would be a pleasure to know in 3D, or even 4D (make up your own joke).

Second, despite the best intentions of my nearest and dearest, I’m not cut out for this. It’s a huge effort to invest so much time, energy and interest in another human being. The odd thing is that I am interested in humanity… just not so much in individual humans. I do agree with Cashel (admitting this in public for the first time) that I should be more in touch with the world and find myself somebody to care about. But it’s so hard! Out of the six people with whom I left OKCupid for telephony:

One said he didn’t want to waste my time and disappeared.

One invited me out for a drink, asked for a 24-hour postponement and disappeared.

One is a sort-of-acquaintance with whom communication, regrettably, has dried up. Disappearance is imminent.

One is fun to listen to in an impersonal sort of way, like having a conversation with a child: entertaining, but doesn’t stick. The typically Indian expression timepass describes it best. Disappearance is unlikely, though, because this one is persistent – or perhaps bored with life and needing a distraction. It wouldn’t make any difference if he did absent himself.

One has started telephoning me every few days and running out of conversation almost immediately, because we haven’t made the jump from acquaintances to friends and it’s awkward. Recently, this fellow experienced an important life event and I’m the first one he called (or so he said). It’s rather sad that the first person he thought of telling is one he has known for about six weeks and never seen. I do hope he has – or makes – some real-life friends, though I have no overwhelming desire to be one of them.

One who seemed destined for friendship is very obviously backtracking from what may be a messier situation than he anticipated (no surprise there). Real life people have more faces and edges than the ones we meet online, dude. Sorry… though the loss is entirely mine.

Francis Clifford, the author of the lovely All Men Are Lonely Now, got his title from a poem which Google the omnipotent doesn’t seem to recognize:

All men are lonely now;
This is the hour when no man has a friend.

Incidentally – and since you know I am basically a book nerd please forgive this compulsive digression – Mr Clifford is in equal parts praised and vilified for this book, at least online. As with the 1941 film version of The Maltese Falcon, a lot what it pioneered has now become so commonplace that people coming to it later in life find it dated and unoriginal, not realising that it’s the blueprint. The character of the Old Man always seemed to me to have a lot in common with George Smiley. I have a first edition of All Men… and wouldn’t part with it for anything. End of sidebar.

Third: in my old-fashioned way, I’ve almost never walked away from people (running away is different) and didn’t do it this time. But people have walked way from me – not just boyfriends, thank goodness – and they did this time. What did I learn? Again, that there is nothing new under the sun. Not new, but a relevant reminder for those pessimists trying to switch sides. People come and people go but dust accumulates, especially on top of the fridge.

Fourth, this enterprise was always gamed for failure – I didn’t expect anything good to come of it, and Cashel, though wanting me to be ‘settled’, is second to none in his lack of appreciation for my virtues. No one would be more astonished than he upon receiving my wedding invitation. (“You? Who’d want to marry you?”) Still, it was a teeny-tiny disappointment to find that so many men agree with him. I’m vainer – if that’s a word – than I thought. My friends and family, if any actually read my output, are probably smiling and shaking their heads at this point. Yes, yes, pride goeth before a fall, thank you.

Last – and farthest north in importance – is learning to let go. It doesn’t matter. I should be connected to the world of the living (and not, as some have remarked upon seeing my books, have more dead friends) but it doesn’t matter. It isn’t me and I don’t have to try to make it so. I spent the last ten months in a fog of depression that has still not lifted, and I hoped, pathetically, that somebody would come by and rescue me (Mr Styron’s fault, perhaps?). It doesn’t work like that, and it’s wrong to expect more from strangers than from those one already knows – after all, strangers have invested less.

wile-e-coyote-falling-off-cliff-300x225
Image source: jugglingdynamite.com

Regardless of management spiel, the best way to learn to fly isn’t to jump. Jumping only teaches the best way to go splat, unless you’re Wil E Coyote and can upeel yourself from the ground afterwards.

I’m not entirely ‘over’ the experience yet. Sometimes, on quiet nights, I sit in my balcony and wonder what might have happened if I’d stayed on the web site longer, or if any of these Secret Six are worth taking any more trouble over. But it’s all academic. I took the experience seriously, opened my heart in good faith and tried my best, no question, and that’s all that matters.

To quote Pierre de Coubertin in a context that’s topical but couldn’t be wronger if it tried:

The important thing… is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in Life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

Thank you, gentlemen, for the privilege of taking part.

 

Adventures in Online Dating Part II: Them

Read Part I here.

The very first message is from Drunken Groping Man: the one I wrote about in The Invisible Woman At Work. Nearly ten years have passed, but his memory is as fresh as mine. “Hi there, pretty bird,” he writes, “Missed me?”

This unnerves me enough to delete my account. It hasn’t occurred to me until then that someone I know can be on the same online dating service. It’s like going up on the stage to receive your Nobel Prize and finding that the head of the awards committee is the schoolyard bully who used to dunk your head in the toilet and take your lunch money.

I explain to Cashel that, though in general my word is my bond, this time he must excuse me. Cashel is always reasonable. He only says, “Why didn’t you just block the guy?” I confess that I didn’t know it was possible to do that. Cashel, with a familiarity that is ever more suspicious, describes the blocking procedure (from memory, he says).

Emboldened by the Power of the Block, I recreate the account, rewrite the profile and venture forth to meet Them – the men who will occupy much of my free time for the next three weeks.

The vast majority are either creepy, pathetic or both.

The one who opens with, “My number is xxx xxx xxx. Wanna have phone sex?”.

The one who seems intelligent until he says, “My wife doesn’t understand me.”

The one who offers unsolicited advice: “Women should be like women. Why don’t you grow your hair?”

The one looking for a wife because his son needs a new, full-time, stay-at-home mother.

The one who recommends I change my profile photograph to “something that shows a little more of you. You know, boobs.”

The young, brash one, who – when I politely decline his advances – challenges me: “Fine! Be judgemental! I’m young, so I’m immature!”

The one who demonstrates frightening but unusual honesty. “I’m going to find you,” he writes, “and then I’m going to come to your place and do things to you,” and proceeds to list, in graphic detail, the things he has in mind.

The innumerable clueless weirdos who open the conversation with the words, “Hi, babe.” (Or, interchangeably, “What are you wearing?”, “Are you lonely tonight, baby?” or even “Hai, wanna do fraandship?”)

Drunken Groping Man, though blocked, creates half a dozen or so alternate personalities and stalks me through the lonely corridors of OKCupid until I give up and delete my account again. This time I don’t intend to go back.

I feel vaguely sorry for these men, but they don’t count. This is about the ones that do count, the ones that made the experience worthwhile.

Political Hippie

I’m in Cincinnati, suffering through jet-lag. He sends a message at 5.30 AM (“When you say ‘records’, do you mean really ‘records’?”). LPs are a weakness and anybody who even knows what they are gets bonus points. We debate the relative merits of Dave Brubeck and Cannonball Adderley. My use of ‘s’ instead of ‘z’ reveals I’m not a local. The conversation flows into American politics. My new friend is politically aware, has nuanced opinions, and is an observer rather than a participant: he might be me in drag. I fire socio-political questions like an overeager sociologist and he answers them all with patience, grace and good humour. I’m enchanted, and by 6.30 AM I have asked what he’s doing that evening. Immediately he puts up a disclaimer: he doesn’t look as good as his profile picture, he’s dropped out of college, he has two daughters, he’s not good party company. I say I don’t care. This unsettles him so much that he agrees to come over for drinks. All this, and we don’t even know each other’s real names yet.

He drives down to my hotel, drinks wine with me and educates me about the American zeitgeist. He’s a middle-aged hippie – tall, thin, loose-limbed, straggly beard and uncombed long hair; a Midwestern Jesus with calm grey eyes. His humour is dry, cutting and pleasantly un-American. It’s a wonderful, informative, entertaining evening but as impersonal as a university lecture. I walk him to his car, he hugs me and drives off. Our entire association has lasted fourteen hours.

Liberal Evangelical

Politics seem to be inescapable in the US right now, and this man is only after one thing – my opinion, as a foreigner, on the ongoing political circus. I’m a political junkie, so I readily enter into what becomes an oddly formal conversation about freedom, democracy and other weighty matters. He says he’s a Christian and that his faith is important to him. I ask, tremulously, whether my being a heathen is a problem, and can almost see him smile as he types back, “To each his own.”

For two weeks we exchange ideas and opinions. It never gets personal, but then it isn’t supposed to. This is a chance to find out what the other half thinks of us, nothing more – but most certainly nothing less. He’s intelligent, funny in a Bob Newhart straight man kind of way, happy in himself (a most attractive quality). He asks questions with a childlike simplicity of manner, about religion, social norms, women’s rights. I know, almost immediately, that we will feed off each other’s brains and move on. Two weeks later, it happens. We don’t meet, and we never will.

Asynchronous Twin

I return to India, vaguely dissatisfied with my online experience. Then a message comes in. “How would you feel,” it says, “if someone called you GraphicNovelThief?”

Original and tangential and uses proper grammar and punctuation! I’m smitten, but cautious, so I set a test of literary worth. He passes, effortlessly and with flying colours. “Be mine,” I say, caution be damned. “You flatterer, you. Buy me some tea,” he parries, “and we’ll work out a deal.”

This association advances at an unexpectedly fast clip. Within three days we’ve abandoned OKCupid for text messages. We trade trivia, flirt, talk books and music, make bad puns. It’s too much to say that I’m besotted, but I’m definitely enjoying myself. For the first time in years I encounter a mind that both excites and intimidates me.

It all comes crashing down when we meet in person. He’s just as interesting, witty, intelligent and poised in real life, but there it ends. This man isn’t my soulmate, because he’s too much like me. We’re a year apart in age, but we might easily be twins. There’s a sort of hateful Heisenberg recursivity in the way we sit and talk while a part of me and a part of him stand aside and observe the conversation, each other, and each other observing the conversation.

I can tell him everything and nothing; everything because nothing is personal, and nothing because everything is.

We try again, meet the next week. This time he’s candid – he doesn’t see any possibility of romance between us. I concur entirely. Again, I have a wonderful evening, but I leave with a sense of failure. It feels like I can’t even be friends with myself.

It’s the third week now. We still talk occasionally, but it’s stilted; that easy, flirtatious, intimately funny tone our first exchanges had is gone, and it’s a shame.

Not My Christian

He’s trying out OKCupid for the first time and wants to know whether the messaging system works. I acknowledge, and we begin a conversation in which playful banter alternates with serious commentary on gender bias. He expresses surprise at my being real, and I suppress the unbidden mental image of an inflatable Playboy Playmate sitting at a keyboard. He addresses me as ‘Miss’, a habit which persists even after he knows my name, and which makes me feel like the school marm in a wild west picture. I hypothesize idly that he went to an all-boys school. Elementary, my dear Watson.

We climb out of the online dating cesspit into the fresh air of telephony, and almost immediately have a difference of opinion. To be fair, he’s already told me he’s old-fashioned – opens doors, pulls out chairs, doesn’t approve of slang or swearing (ahem) – but I don’t want to be fair, I want to be left to myself. He shows immense patience and leaves me alone for a few days before restarting, in typically gentlemanly fashion, a fresh conversation with no hint of rancour.

Distance and traffic prevent us from meeting. I call him up and ask his permission to write about him. “If it’s complimentary,” he says. Then, “Go ahead, feel free.” I like his humour, his compassion for animals, his astonishing sense of tact, his creativity. Temperamentally, we’re almost certainly incompatible. We may become friends, if we don’t spend too much time in each other’s company. Or these fitful sparks may just fizzle and die. At this point, both outcomes are equally likely.

Student Driver

This is where it all breaks down.

I begin a conversation with somebody who unchecks all the boxes. Younger. IT geek. Not political. Doesn’t eat meat. Not as well-read. Different tastes in music, books, film, everything. Doesn’t drink much. Limited life experience. Younger. Younger. Younger. Dammit.

But he’s a nice, kind person. Affectionate, empathetic, self-deprecating, humorous, endearingly shy. I’m shy too, and I know how difficult it is to strike up a conversation with a stranger – especially one who has all the shields up. So I respond, equally kindly, and we embark upon the longest of all the virtual associations this strange journey has given me.

We talk, first on OKCupid, then by text, as though we already know each other. I have a bad night, can’t speak. He calls and talks to me until I calm down. If he thinks it odd that he still hasn’t heard my voice, he makes no comment.

He tells me he likes hugs, so I attempt, awkwardly, to give him one at our first meeting. Bad move, but he doesn’t judge – or at least gives no outward sign. We spend several hours together. We talk, hold hands in silence, kiss tentatively. Physical intimacy seems to come more naturally than speaking. He wants to go further, but I stop him – not because we have just met, but because I sense this will get complicated very quickly.

It’s fairly evident that I have achieved a deferment, not a permanent refusal. As it turns out, that deferment lasts precisely eight days. I’m apprehensive; this is someone I am meeting for only the second time. When he pulls off his shirt, the realisation that he wears a thread makes me leap up in panic. As ever, he takes my bizarre behaviour in stride. At last we’re lying in the dark quietly; he smiles at me, and I have a sudden, unwelcome flashback to someone else whose smile looked exactly the same, long ago. Complication, as expected.

Being with this man is like learning to drive again. Everything is familiar, everything is new; once every ten minutes I wonder if it’s a mistake. Quite soon I decide that it is.

On my OKCupid profile, under things that I’m good at, I list writing, wrapping presents and being right.

It’s no solace at all to know that I didn’t exaggerate about being right.

Read Part III here.

 

 

Adventures in Online Dating Part I: ‘It’ Begins

Advance notice: Feel free to skip this one, it contains nothing but teaser-trailers.

Where things start isn’t always easy to determine, but this one I remember distinctly: it started with a football match.

France’s 5-2 victory over Iceland in the 2016 UEFA Euro, to be exact.

For some time now, Cashel has been after me – first suggesting, then advising, now nagging – to marry and “settle down”. Not with him; he settled down like a stale meringue ages ago. He uses the terms marriage and happiness interchangeably, so it’s only to be expected that he deems my hermit-like existence unsatisfactory. Since he views me with a proprietary big brother eye (notwithstanding the fact that I am the elder by six months), he has taken it upon himself to remedy the situation.

This quack doctoring hasn’t worked as well as Cashel would like, mostly because I am a very bad patient, so this time he comes up with a new approach: knowing my affection for plucky little Iceland, he challenges me to bet on the goal difference in their game against France. If I win, Cashel quits nagging and finds me a suitable boy; if I lose, I “venture out of [my] nunnery” (his expression) and sign up for an online dating service.

Coincidentally, the lady with the thankless job of helping me with my mental health also recommends online dating, in the hope that giving someone else my attention reduces the incidence or intensity of the Black Death.

If I win, Cashel will forget all about it and let me be, I think desperately. If I lose, two birds with one stone. So we bet. The French team, which I dislike, thoroughly justifies my dislike by hammering the stuffing out of Iceland, leaving me with the unfamiliar, unwelcome and unpleasant task of “putting myself out there” (Cashel again) for the impersonal scrutiny of strangers.

I negotiate terms. Two weeks only. He sticks out for a month. We compromise – at least two weeks, but try to hold on for the full four – and do it properly!

Talk to people, be yourself, be witty and clever and geeky and innocently flirtatious (who, me?!). Put up a decent photograph (this one is tough, as I loathe having my picture taken).

Accept invitations to meet if asked. Don’t just create an account and ignore it (dammit, there goes Plan A).

Don’t talk books all the time. (Umm… how do you feel about magazine articles? Shampoo bottle labels? Can I at least ask guys if they can read?). Don’t lead with your brain (what else is there?).

Don’t do that awkward-deer-in-the-headlights stalking-like-the-Grim-Reaper thing you do (pause while I revel in this positive riot of mixed metaphors). Remember to walk like you’re a woman, not a giraffe (at this point I interject, mildly, that he isn’t my mother. Thank God, says Cashel. Poor woman).

Conditions governing contract in place, I take a deep breath and plunge in. To my delight, almost all online dating platforms require the user to have a Facebook account. Our terms and conditions say nothing about Facebook, so I call for termination due to force majeure. Unfortunately, Cashel – who is suspiciously familiar with online dating for a married guy – is prepared for this. OKCupid, he says. Now quit stalling.

I create an account, dig up a picture where my face is sufficiently in darkness to look kinda-sorta-attractive to myopic viewers, and contemplate with distaste the ‘about you’ information they’re asking for. Self-summary, it says at the top, like an online résumé tool. What are six things you can’t live without? What are your favourite books, music, movies, TV shows, politicians, infectious diseases, Isaac Watts hymns, underwear colours? Why should somebody message you? I am pedantic enough to cringe on seeing ‘message’ used as a verb. At least they didn’t ask which Spice Girl (or Backstreet Boy) I like best.

Sometimes being a compulsive writer is a curse – it takes me four days to write a profile that meets my authorial standards. Will it meet mating-suitability standards? I circumvent Cashel’s injunctions about books, brain and Grim Reaper by putting the ‘I am a clumsy shy nerd’ disclaimer at the top.

Even before I’ve finished profile-polishing, I have a dozen messages. Being a solemn-oath type, I have resolved that ‘doing it properly’ means being polite, gentle and responsive to every message I get. So I read them all patiently and reply. (“Thank you for considering me but I don’t think you’re really my type. Good luck.”) Even with that, I try to vary each response a little, as though my unseen suitors are comparing notes on my originality.

By the end of the first week, I conclude that there are more awkward teenagers, cocky early-twenty-somethings, ‘misunderstood’ husbands and clueless-will-stay-unlaid-for-life types than grown-up men on the web site. I complain to Cashel, who has a perfectly reasonable explanation: there are more awkward teenagers, cocky early-twenty-somethings, ‘misunderstood’ husbands and clueless-will-stay-unlaid-for-life types than grown-up men in real life too. Faced with this indisputable fact, I subside and continue.

After twenty-four days I can’t bear it any more. Some men I have exchanged telephone numbers with; for the others I am still talking to on the web site, I leave a polite, regretful note, apologising for leaving so abruptly and wishing them luck. I delete my account and don’t have the slightest desire to recreate it. Cashel is disappointed, though he admits that he may have overestimated the appeal of men (all men do this – if I weren’t so aggressively hetero, I would have switched teams long ago).

It’s cliché to compare the world of online dating to Wonderland or the Looking Glass, or even to WesterosMiddle Earth or some other fantasy world. And it isn’t true. For me, meeting men online is more like being underwater… sounds are muted; visibility is poor; creatures are indistinct, deformed, bizarre and quite wonderful; breathing is a struggle.

I resurface with relief and with a lot to think and write about. For four or five days afterwards I’m an art expert examining a sculpture, circling it, viewing it from every angle, my hand stroking my chin. Now I need to communicate, with rather more articulation than simply ‘awesome’ or ‘ugh’, my experience down there under the surface of the sea.

All this has been groundwork – there’s too much to say in a single installment, and my thoughts are still embryonic. Two more posts to come: first, on the men I encountered; second, on what it all means.

Stay tuned.

Read Part II here.

Read Part III here.

A Day In The Life

The ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign is hanging on the door handle when I get back from breakfast. Regardless, the door stands wide open, the cleaning cart blocks my entry, and the cleaning lady is buzzing around inside, muttering under her breath.

So occupied is she with wiping surfaces and making beds that she doesn’t notice me for over a minute. When I greet her in broken Mandarin, she starts, blushes, pushes her hair out of her eyes. Then she takes my key card out of my hand, puts it in the slot and disappears into the gloom of the passage without a word.

I say thank you to the empty room, shut the door and turn to find that the window is open. This is a surprise both pleasant and unpleasant. The night before last I have made a desperate attempt – and failed spectacularly – to open it. I figure the windows in this fully air-conditioned hotel don’t open. But there it is, just as my mystery cleaning lady has left it.

In a way this is a good thing, because I prefer natural air to canned, even in this smoggy place. It’s 8.30 in the morning; I’m feeling, if not exactly good, at least not terrible or even particularly bad. The chance that I will climb out and sit on the parapet contemplating my eternal rest is remote.

Unfortunately, I can’t forget that it can be opened, nor that I know now how to open it. And I still have one more night to pass before I leave. My visit here has so far been a 50-50 washout: two good nights and two bad ones. Now comes the tie-break that will decide whether I leave at all. Analysing data currently available I believe I will board that plane tomorrow afternoon. But many things may happen in the next twenty-four hours.

It’s now 1 o’clock in the afternoon, though you wouldn’t know it by looking outside. The sky has been the same shade of gloomy grey all day. There’s no rain, nor any India-style heavy rainclouds; just a persistent muggy overcast sky. I often imagine this must be what London is like all the time, or Seattle.

I must pass at least ten or eleven hours before I can reasonably think of going to bed. Of those, I can only stretch work to about six. Add another one to walk down to Starbucks for a cold coffee (if you’re wondering why I go to Starbucks, it’s because that’s the only place within walking distance where I have a reasonable chance of being understood). That leaves me three or four hours of existential dread with my room, my window and CNN on television. As CNN is covering The Donald pretty much continuously, it’s not doing much to lift my spirits.

In mini-breaks from work I am reading the web sites of the psychology and psychiatry departments of Johns Hopkins, Cambridge and other universities. They all observe that the depression patient who still feels the emotions of love and care for others has a lower chance of opening hotel room windows, so to speak, because they have such a strong sense of external responsibility. I evaluate this and find, if I am truly honest, that right now there is only one person in the entire world for whom I feel external responsibility because I want to. There are a few for whom I am responsible, but that is a duty, not a desire.

In my linear way, I determine that I must drive myself to care less for myself and more for others; paradoxical it may be but external purpose will give me internal purpose. This is easy to say but hard to do, particularly since I now wish for reciprocal care and don’t feel that I get it.

There’s no particular beginning and end to this blog post. It isn’t a story, it isn’t exactly a stream-of-consciousness ramble or a daydream. I’m alone here on the 6th floor and every minute or so I turn my head and look at the window which I’ve now figured out how to open. I’m passing time by writing so I can use up some of the endless hours in an activity that provides respite from all the shards and needles of glass.

It’s 1.17. I don’t want to open it, but I’ve got nothing much to say.

The Wedding

Radhika reappeared after a gap of years, said she was getting married to a guy from work that none of us knew.

What’s he like, we asked.

Well, he likes books too, she said after a very long pause for thought.

When do we meet him, we said.

Not until it’s too late for him to change his mind, she said. I don’t trust any of you not to tell him the truth about me.

How well she knew us!

So when we received the wedding invitations – by e-mail, as befits this modern tree-loving, postal service-hating generation, we gathered outside Premier Book Store (now gone with the wind, alas, like so many other fine old bookshops) and spent a few minutes gathering contributions.

Time has blurred the memory of what books we picked, though Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own was in the list. Not, perhaps, the most appropriate book to gift to one who was going to share her room with another person for the rest of her life. But such superficial considerations never determined what books we bought each other – and it was our compliment to the as yet unseen groom that we assumed he would love, honour, cherish and obey his bride and her books regardless of what they were.

Still, we had our doubts. After all, we had welcomed this mystery man into our consciousnesses just because Radhika said so – but that didn’t mean he’d be equally open to letting us into his. In fact he’d probably be wise not to.

So we decided to sweeten the deal with a bottle of liqueur. Bailey’s Irish Cream had been the poison of choice the last time one of our number bit the dust, and we didn’t want to mess with a winning formula. We got out the old black permanent marker and signed our names on the bottle along with as many juvenile jokes we could squeeze in.

Because we all knew each other so well – and trusted each other so little – we bought the booze at the last possible minute to minimise the chance that any of us would succumb to temptation. The bottle wasn’t wrapped in anything more elaborate than the black plastic bag that the liquor store gives you in a sweet but misguided attempt to be discreet. The fact is there are only two things in India that come in black plastic bags – liquor and sanitary pads – and everybody knows this. We knew it too, and decided that if Radhika’s mother fainted at the sight of the bag, it would only be a bonus.

By the time we found the wedding venue – and it’s an immutable law that all venues where friends are getting married should be as obscurely located as possible – the explosions were over; the clean-up crew were wiping the blood off the floor and carrying out the body bags. Radhika and her new-minted other half stood at the end of the room. We approached, embarrassed – in the decade-or-so of our extremely close friendship, we had almost never seen each other in such clothes. It was almost as bad as being naked.

Radhika was resplendent in a purple sari tied in the traditional kastha style, like a man’s dhoti – a throwback to the days when women were expected to push the boat out at 4 AM, row for three miles, throw the net into the sea, dive in to untangle knots, sort and carry the catch, clean the house, bring up the kids and cook the dinner, all while wearing nine yards of cumbersome cotton with a gold braid border and several tons of jewellery. She looked gorgeous.

We stopped, spellbound. Then Smriti, Karthik and I spoke together.

Hey, we said, softly.

I feel like Jimi Hendrix, said Ram, behind me. Purple Heys.

There was a pregnant pause. Radhika gave Ram the Look, but wedding propriety restrained her from responding. Radhika’s husband laughed. Clearly, we’d passed the test.

 

We handed over the loot regretfully. There were books in that stack that not all of us had read. There was a bottle of the good stuff that none of us had sampled. But it was Radhika, after all. One of us. Our sister in spirit, if not in blood – and that goes for all the meanings of the word spirit.

Radhika and her beau went off on their honeymoon and she wrote to us from some far-flung outpost that the first thing they did was open (and drain) the bottle; the second, divvy up the books.

Thanks, she wrote. I’m touched.

And then: Don’t ask where!

I don’t think all of us have ever been together since that day. Just recently Karthik explained to me how time moves on, people grow and change, priorities are shuffled, links that were once strong are weakened by the pressures of life. None of this is new, and none of this is particularly depressing either.

After all, when I’ve been fortunate enough to have an extended family that includes (1) those who buy books and liqueur as wedding presents and (2) those who make such immortal puns… nobody can take that away from me.

Anger Management Needed (And A Hug)

Last night I had a debate with a friend on the sort of pseudo-intellectual garbage I delude myself actually has some merit. Here’s my friend’s point, paraphrasing W H Auden:

If it’s true that we are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know.

No, actually that’s unfair, my friend didn’t say – or mean – that. But you must admit it’s a good question. What the hell are all these undeserving morons doing on my planet? I spend so much of my life helping them, and what do they give me in return? Thanks, that’s what. Not reciprocal help.

It’s no wonder I’m the world’s most cynical bastard.

Incidentally, it has become fashionable these days for the word ‘bastard’ to be masculine and ‘bitch’ its feminine equivalent. This is grammatically false, because while the latter is by definition feminine, the former does not technically have a gender connotation. And yes this entire paragraph is pedantic nitpickery. Deal with it.

Anyway, let’s make this quick and minimise the amount of pain my reading audience is experiencing. I need help in the form of some companionable silence OR random and preferably humorous descriptions of things, people, ideas, music, books, TV shows, films, puppies, etc. OR a long-lasting hug. Or even all three, if that were possible.

You know who you are, and you now know what I want you to do. So CAN you justify your presence on earth?

Someone else – who should invest in a good thesaurus – said people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. What they failed to mention was that luck can be either good or bad. Moral of the story: always read the fine print.

William Styron, Black Or Grey

William Styron must have been a very angry man, at least if his writing is any indication.

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and Comicthief’s Corollary is that fiction is more truthful than fact. It’s a rare writer who can completely hide his or her personality in a work of imagination, even when that work is written in the first person and that first person isn’t the writer.

Look at Malcolm Lowry (Under The Volcano). Betty Smith (A Tree Grows In Brooklyn). Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (The Little Prince). Roald Dahl (Danny The Champion Of The World). Jane Austen (Pride And Prejudice). Premchand (Kafan). It only takes a few minutes with Wikipedia to figure out how every line they ever wrote reveals something about them as people.

Poets, by the very nature of their jobs, walk naked in the world. It may be possible – theoretically at least – to write prose and completely conceal one’s personality, but someone trying to hide and rhyme will either fail or produce very bad poetry.

William Styron was a prose poet who walked naked in every book he wrote.

In Sophie’s Choice he created a Polish woman faced with a terrible decision: which of her children to give up to the Nazis. She survives the war and comes to America, that land of new starts and second chances. The story isn’t actually about that dreadful choice but about its emotional consequences, not just on Sophie but on those around her – the man she elects to love and the one she elects to befriend. Sophie is both tragic and joyous, but there is an underlying rage to the book that explodes every once in a while in the personality of her lover, Nathan Landau.

The story of Sophie and Nathan is told from the point of view of aspiring writer Stingo, but Stingo is not the voice of Styron. Instead, Styron manifests in self-destructive Nathan and angry, indignant and often imprudent commentary about the Holocaust. In effect, Styron is arguing two things: first, that the Holocaust was a crime against all humanity (rather than the Jewish people alone), because its after-effects penetrated everything, including that bastion of optimism, the United States; and second, that self-loathing, rather than eternal vigilance, is the price of liberty – not just for ourselves, but for those around us; the only way to put an end to a saga of evil is for its perpetrators and its victims to be destroyed.

Then there’s The Confessions Of Nat Turner, an inspired look back at the short and explosive life of the legendary slave who led an uprising in 1831 that resulted in over two hundred and fifty deaths.

At the time of its publication, The Confessions caused an uproar as fellow writers argued for and against a white man’s right to tell this story. As an Indian reading this book in pre-Internet days, I knew nothing of its background, not even that Nat Turner was a real person and the book based on a confession he made, just before he was executed, to his lawyer. All that came through was Styron’s rage at the cruelty and injustice of the times of which he was writing.

Now more qualified critics have commented at length on whether or not Styron, as a representative of the race in the wrong, had any right to tell this story. Regardless, the theme of self-loathing permeates this book as well. Styron, a literary Jesus, seems to be carrying the cross of racial shame on his back.

Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions are the books for which Styron is best known. My favourite of all his fiction works is Set This House On Fire, a violent and often melodramatic meditation on good, evil, love, friendship and alienation.

Peter Leverett meets an old friend in Italy. The friend, Mason Flagg, is found dead the next day. Peter unravels the story of his friend’s last years, last hours and new life in Italy, and finds that the person he thought he knew turned out to be someone else altogether. He encounters Cass Kinsolving, a painter driven to art and madness by Flagg and his own demons. By the end, Peter would be hard-pressed to say whether he himself is sane, insane, alive or dead.

Self-loathing underlies this story too. Cass and Peter, tortured and unhappy as they are, are pushing their own self-destruct buttons. Mason, the engine of others’ sufferings, is punished – or perhaps released – by death. Styron is saying that the wages of sin may be death, but the salary of virtue is to continue to exist on Earth, a living Hell that we have created for ourselves.

By this time it’s evident that Styron had issues of his own that he was trying – unsuccessfully, by the look of it – to work out through his stories. While he and I have nothing in common except English as a medium, I identified with his characters so strongly that I felt perhaps we shared something else too.

When I picked up Darkness Visible I realised what it was. More naked than ever here, Styron writes with lucidity, grace and courage about his descent into an ocean of depression so vast and deep that even his magnificent attempts to stay afloat through writing were rendered insignificant. This was where the self-loathing came from, the blinding rage, the uncontrollable desire for destruction and the grey translucence that envelops everyone and everything, as though one were a ghost walking unheard and unseen through the world.

Until then I had thought that when somebody sank into a black depression, that was exactly how it felt – black and impenetrable.

Darkness Visible taught me that depression was grey, punctuated by red. Depression was knowing that one exists without feeling alive; sensing people and things as though in dreams, not reality; wanting to climb up to the top of a mountain and scream and scream and scream until one has no voice left – and then take one small step off the edge into the unthinking, unknowing, welcoming silence of death.

Reading and writing are a refuge, a sanctuary from the demons in the head. If Styron’s work is any indication, you can’t hold the greyness at bay by punching the air. Or by asking your fictional children to punch for you. The path back home through the fog of unreality is illuminated by the lamps of real human warmth.

Fortunately, Mr Styron caught sight of his rescuer.

Hope springs eternal.

 

 

My Father The Reader

Every journey into the past is complicated by delusions, false memories, false namings of real events.

-Adrienne Rich

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Most people grow up in a house; I grew up in a library.

It was a very special kind of library: one where nobody but immediate family members was ever allowed to borrow the books. We watched like hungry tigers as visitors ran their eyes across the shelves. Our dining table was used less for eating than as a conveniently large horizontal surface for opening up the newspaper, piling up magazines, drawing, painting, homework, covering schoolbooks, wrapping presents, and other paper-related activities. When I told prospective guests that a visit to our house would end with a mandatory body cavity search for smuggled literature, I was only half-joking.

Certainly there were books in every room. Even those parts of the house nominally under the control of one parent or the other, like the tiny bathroom under the stairs where my father retired to “think” several times a day, had a stack of books, usually Asterix, Archie or Tintin comics, presumably to aid in cogitation.

When I was about seven my mother, dusting off the literature degree that had lain unused since her marriage, went to work as librarian at a school that had just opened in town. Her first task was to compile a list of 400 or so books to occupy those virgin shelves. The principal, impressed with the diversity and completeness of the list and its unexpectedly short preparation time, asked my mother how she had managed to put it together so quickly.

‘Oh,’ said my mother innocently, ‘we have all these at home.’

I don’t know what happened after that, but I imagine the other teachers distanced themselves rather quickly from this strange lady.

This is one of my favourite stories about my family, and not just because it shows off how many books we had. Until then, it had never occurred to me that other people didn’t have thousands of books lying around their houses and were forced to depend on libraries. It was inconceivable that people didn’t read anything except textbooks, and those only when they had no other choice.

With a family like this it was inevitable that I could only think of one thing I wanted to become when I grew up. Other kids wanted to be doctors (obviously), engineers (if they couldn’t get into medical school), dentists (if their marks weren’t good enough for engineering) or dead (no point growing up). I wanted to write the kind of books I was reading, which took me around the universe and into the most unexpected places inside my own head.

Though I did write, and won a few prizes, and got my work published in newspapers and magazines once in a while, I haven’t achieved the earth-shaking success my childhood acquaintances expected of me. When I met a friend’s father recently after a 20-year gap, almost his first question was, ‘Why haven’t you published yet?’

I consoled myself with the thought that not all readers become writers. But that got me wondering whether my parents had, in fact, done any writing.

They say that couples who have lived together a long time begin to resemble each other. As a child, I knew that both my parents loved to read; how could they not, when they had assembled a collection several thousand strong? But I never knew, and don’t know now, whether this shared bibliophilia was part of what brought them together, or whether one of them influenced the other through the many years of their married life.

I had a vague idea that my father’s pre-wedding book collection was bigger and more diverse than my mother’s. One piece of evidence was the small number of books inscribed with my mother’s maiden name – far from conclusive, since my laconic father wrote only his first name on his books, and then not always.

There were also the letters. My parents had written to each other during their engagement (and maybe before), and my mother has preserved her share of the correspondence in her Bluebeard drawer (not to be opened on pain of death). I’ve never read the letters – I swear, Mum! – but I have seen the bundle and it’s a thick one. Again, evidence that my father wrote, though it’s extremely likely that he put my mother’s letters somewhere safely and forgot where.

Every summer my mother and I travelled to my grandmother’s house in Bangalore while my poor father stayed behind. I’m certain he never wrote to me then and neither did I write to him, though telephone calls were rare and expensive. I assume he and my mother corresponded, and the news that I was well and happy was enough – not that I took any notice of the lives of grown-ups.

The year I turned fifteen I was separated from my parents for the first time, shipped off to the sort of Borstal that I had until then fondly imagined to exist only in books by Brendan Behan. Then too it was my mother who wrote, on blue inland letter cards that were duly intercepted, censored and commented upon by the authorities. My father, she said, was doing fine and busy at work. I wasn’t doing fine, but I too was busy with school. By comparison, she and my brother seemed to lead lives of infinite variety. I was lonely and bored, but the school’s only saving grace was its library and I devoured books like a shark in a feeding frenzy.

Then a crisis arose. The school organised a grand tour to Sikkim, 2500 km away. Travel, food and accommodation were paid for, but students were expected to have ‘pocket-money’ for souvenirs and incidentals.

My parents had never given me ‘pocket-money’. Often we were, if not exactly hand-to-mouth, then definitely close to it. When we had money to spare we lived well, eating out frequently and taking vacations where we could. I rarely wanted for anything, and the things I did want – mostly books, not surprisingly – were procured without comment.

As a result, I had no idea how much money I ought to have for a two-week trip to the other end of the country.

Embarrassed to confide in any of my co-prisoners, I made some totally unsubstantiated calculations and asked my mother hesitantly whether I could have Rs. 1000.

Letters generally took a week to get home, and I waited nervously as the date of departure drew nearer. Finally, two days before we were due to leave, the postman delivered a money order for Rs. 1000 to the school office.

At the bottom of the grubby grey form, in my father’s immaculate hand, were these immortal words:

Dear Daughter, here is the money. Love, Dad.

Of course, my father had written my first name and his.

Those were the only words he ever wrote to me.

My father and I shared this planet for 24 years, 11 months and 5 days. When he departed – unexpectedly, and with a typical lack of fanfare – from a shabby serviced apartment in Bombay, I was in Gurgaon, blissfully unaware of what had happened until nearly twelve hours later.

I had called him three days before to wish him on his 55th birthday, and disturbed him in the middle of an office meeting. He said he would call back and never did.

Over a decade has passed since my father died, and my memory of his voice is beginning to fade. I know this is normal, but occasionally I wonder whether, if I had more of his writings, I could re-read them and so hear his voice again.

But then, when I am home and see the rows – and stacks – of books everywhere, I can hear him speaking to me from Golding’s The Lord of The Flies; from Shaw’s St. Joan; from Steinbeck’s East of Eden; from Russell’s In Praise of Idleness; and so many others that he insisted I read.

My father and I weren’t close. We never wrote to each other. When I lived at home I was too young to recognise him as an individual, and by the time I was old enough he wasn’t around any more. Nonetheless, I know him better now than I ever did, because while he sent me no letters, he left himself in the books he left for me.