AN INTRODUCTION BY YIYUN LI
There are certain things I have heard writing students say to each other often. Recently a student said to a peer in a workshop, the author of a story: “You have to let your character want something, and then you have to take that thing away from him.”
I can’t quite argue with the apparent wisdom of such advice, though it makes me uneasy. Really, can an author make a character desire something and then deprive her of the thing she desires, like a divine power? Thwarted desires, unfulfilled promises, the elusiveness of happiness and the pervasiveness of the unwanted — these can be found in good stories, but in bad stories, too.
What distinguishes a great story writer from a mediocre one? Akhil Sharma would be among the few living authors I would choose, along with masters like Chekhov, William Trevor, Eudora Welty, and James Alan McPherson, to tackle that question.
Toward the end of the story, “If You Sing like that for Me,” Anita, a newly-wedded woman in Delhi, observes:
The eucalyptus trees shook their heads side to side. “The rain always makes me feel as if I am waiting for someone,” I said, and then regretted saying it, for Rajinder was not paying attention, and perhaps it could have been said better.
“The rain always makes me feel as if I am waiting for someone.” Such an unexpected feeling, unexpected because a reader experiences a tremble of recognition and an awe of how the character expresses what is to her on the cusp of the inexpressible. Such a strange thing to say to a husband when, so early in their marriage, they haven’t gone through the clichés of love and hope and fantasy and disappointment.
Yet it couldn’t have been said better. The weather, the season, the loneliness of watching the rain next to a husband — who, unlike Anita, knows exactly what he wants and gets what he wants — and, without giving away the final passages, his brutal honesty: all these shatter the characters and us readers as much as the ending of “The Dead.”
“Snow was general all over Ireland.” Joyce presents the prevalence of death throughout the story, yet that does not cushion us from the final scene. Similarly, Akhil Shama summarizes his story in the first two sentences:
Late one June afternoon, seven months after my wedding, I woke from a short, deep sleep, in love with my husband. I did not know then, lying in bed and looking out the window at the line of gray clouds, that my love would last only a few hours and that I would never again care for Rajinder with the same urgency — never again in the five homes we would share and through the two daughters and one son we would also share, though unevenly and with great bitterness.
It’s not what a writer gives a character and then takes away that makes a good story — we have all learned to live with, and oftentimes become indifferent to, other people’s losses. But six months from reading the story I may wake up one morning, to a raining day or a snowing day, in my own house or in a hotel room, feeling the devastation that runs through Anita at the end of the story. No words prepare us for grief.
– Yiyun Li
Author of Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life
A Story About the Devastation of Loving Your Husband
“If You Sing Like That For Me”
By Akhil Sharma
Late one June afternoon, seven months after my wedding, I woke from a short, deep sleep, in love with my husband. I did not know then, lying in bed and looking out the window at the line of gray clouds, that my love would last only a few hours and that I would never again care for Rajinder with the same urgency — never again in the five homes we would share and through the two daughters and one son we would also share, though unevenly and with great bitterness. I did not know this then, suddenly awake and only twenty-six, with a husband not much older, nor did I know that the memory of the coming hours would periodically overwhelm me throughout my life.
We were living in a small flat on the roof of a three-story house in Defense Colony, in New Delhi. Rajinder had signed the lease a week before our wedding. Two days after we married, he took me to the flat. I had thought I would be frightened entering my new home for the first time, but I was not. I felt very still that morning, watching Rajinder in his gray sweater bend over and open the padlock. Although it was cold, I wore only a pink silk sari and blouse, because I knew that my thick eyebrows, broad nose, and thin lips made me homely, and to win his love I must try especially hard to be appealing, even though I did not want to be.
The sun filled the living room through a window that took up half a wall and looked out onto the concrete roof. Rajinder went in first, holding the heavy brass padlock in his right hand. In the center of the room was a low plywood table with a thistle broom on top, and in a corner three plastic folding chairs lay collapsed on the floor. I followed a few steps behind Rajinder. The room was a white rectangle. Looking at it, I felt nothing. I saw the table and broom, the window grille with its drooping iron flowers, the dust in which we left our footprints, and I thought I should be feeling something, some anxiety, or fear, or curiosity. Perhaps even joy.
“We can put the TV there,” Rajinder said softly, standing before the window and pointing to the right corner of the living room. He was slightly overweight and wore sweaters that were a bit large for him. They made him appear humble, a small man aware of his smallness. The thick black frames of his glasses, his old-fashioned mustache, as thin as a scratch, and the fading hairline created an impression of thoughtfulness. “The sofa before the window.” At that moment, and often that day, I would think of myself with his smallness forever, bearing his children, going where he went, having to open always to his touch, and whatever I was looking at would begin to waver, and I would want to run. Run down the curving dark stairs, fast, fast, through the colony’s narrow streets, with my sandals loud and alone, until I got to the bus stand and the 52 came, and then at the ice factory I would change to the 10, and finally I would climb the wooden steps to my parents’ flat and the door would be open and no one would have noticed that I had gone with some small man.
I followed Rajinder into the bedroom, and the terror was gone, an open door now shut, and again I felt nothing, as if I were marble inside. The two rooms were exactly alike, except the bedroom was empty. “And there, the bed,” Rajinder said, placing it with a slight wave of his hand against the wall across from the window. He spoke slowly and firmly, as if he were describing what was already there. “The fridge we can put right there,” at the foot of the bed. Both were part of my dowry. Whenever he looked at me, I either said yes or nodded my head in agreement. We went outside and he showed me the kitchen and the bathroom, which were connected to the flat but could be entered only through doors opening onto the roof.
From the roof, a little after eleven, I watched Rajinder drive away on his scooter. He was going to my parents’ flat in the Old Vegetable Market, where my dowry and our wedding gifts were stored. I had nothing to do while he was gone, so I wandered in and out of the flat and around the roof. Defense Colony was composed of rows of pale two- or three-story buildings. A small park, edged with eucalyptus trees, was behind our house.
Rajinder returned two hours later with his elder brother, Ashok, and a yellow van. It took three trips to bring the TV, the sofa, the fridge, the mixer, the steel plates, and my clothes. Each time they left, I wanted them never to return. Whenever they pulled up outside, Ashok pressed the horn, which played “Jingle Bells.” I was frightened by Ashok, because, with his handlebar mustache and muscular forearms, he reminded me of my father’s brothers, who, my mother claimed, beat their wives. Listening to his curses drift out of the stairwell each time he bumped against a wall while maneuvering the sofa, TV, and fridge up the stairs, I felt ashamed, as if he were cursing the dowry and, through it, me.
On the first trip they brought back two suitcases that my mother had packed with my clothes. I was cold, and when they left, I changed in the bedroom. My hands were trembling by then, and each time I swallowed, I felt a sharp pain in my throat that made my eyes water. Standing there in the room gray with dust, the light like cold, clear water, I felt sad and lonely and excited at being naked in an empty room in a place where no one knew me. I put on a salwar kameez, but even completely covered by the big shirt and pants, I was cold. I added a sweater and socks, but the cold had slipped under my skin and lingered beneath my fingernails.
Rajinder did not appear to notice I had changed. I swept the rooms while the men were gone, and stacked the kitchen shelves with the steel plates, saucers, and spoons that had come as gifts. Rajinder and Ashok brought all the gifts except the bed, which was too big for them. It was raised to the roof by pulleys the next day. They were able to bring up the mattress, though, and the sight of it made me happy, for I knew I would fall asleep easily and that another eight hours would pass.
We did not eat lunch, but in the evening I made rotis and lentils on a kerosene stove. The kitchen had no lightbulb, and I had only the stove’s blue flame to see by. The icy wind swirled around my feet. Nearly thirty years later I can still remember that wind. I could eat only one roti, while Rajinder and Ashok had six each. We sat in the living room, and they spoke loudly of their family’s farm, gasoline prices, politics in Haryana, and Indira Gandhi’s government. I spoke once, saying that I liked Indira Gandhi, and Ashok said that was because I was a Delhi woman who wanted to see women in power. My throat hurt and I felt as if I were breathing steam.
Ashok left after dinner, and Rajinder and I were truly alone for the first time since our marriage. Our voices were so respectful, we might have been in mourning. He took me silently in the bedroom, on the mattress beneath the window with the full moon peering in. When it was over and Rajinder was sleeping, I lifted myself on an elbow to look at him. I felt somehow that I could look at him more easily while he was asleep. I would not be nervous, trying to hide my scrutiny, and if the panic came, I could just hold on until it passed. I thought that if I could see him properly just once, I would no longer be frightened; I would know what kind of a man he was and what the future held. But the narrow mouth and the stiff, straight way he slept, with his arms folded across his chest, said one thing, and the long, dark eyelashes denied it. I stared at him until he started flickering, and then I closed my eyes.
Three months earlier, when our parents introduced us, I did not think we would marry. The neutrality of Rajinder’s features, across the restaurant table from me, reassured me that we would not meet after that dinner. It was not that I expected to marry someone particularly handsome. I was neither pretty nor talented, and my family was not rich. But I could not imagine spending my life with someone so anonymous. If asked, I would have been unable to tell what kind of man I wanted to marry, whether he should be handsome and funny. I was not even certain I wanted to marry, though at times I thought marriage would make me less lonely. What I wanted was to be with someone who could make me different, someone other than the person I was.
Rajinder did not appear to be such a man, and although the fact that we were meeting meant that our families approved of each other, I still felt safe. Twice before, my parents had sat on either side of me as I met men found through the matrimonial section of the Sunday Times of India. One received a job offer in Bombay, and Ma and Pitaji did not want to send me that far away with someone they could not be sure of. The other, who was very handsome and drove a motorcycle, had lied about his income. I was glad that he had lied, for what could such a handsome man find in me?
Those two introductions were also held in Vikrant, a two-story dosa restaurant across from the Amba cinema. I liked Vikrant, for I thought the place’s obvious cheapness would be held against us. The evening that Rajinder and I met, Vikrant was crowded with people waiting for the six-to-nine show. We sat down and an adolescent waiter swept bits of sambhar and dosa from the table onto the floor. Footsteps upstairs caused flecks of blue paint to drift down.
As the dinner began, Rajinder’s mother, a small, round woman with a pockmarked face, spoke of her sorrow that Rajinder’s father had not lived to see his two sons reach manhood. Ashok, sitting on one side of Rajinder, nodded slowly and solemnly at this. Rajinder gave no indication of what he thought. After a moment of silence Pitaji, obese and bald, tilted slightly forward and said, “It’s all in the stars. What can a man do?” The waiter returned with five glasses of water, his fingers dipped to the second joint in the water. Rajinder and I were supposed to speak, but I was nervous, despite my certainty that we would not marry, and could think of nothing to say. We did not open our mouths until we ordered our dosas. Pitaji, worried that we would spend the meal in silence, asked Rajinder, “Other than work, how do you like to spend your time?” Then, to impress Rajinder with his sophistication, he added in English, “What hobbies you have?” The door to the kitchen, a few tables from us, was open, and I saw a cow standing near a skillet.
“I like to read the newspaper. In college I played badminton,” Rajinder answered in English. His voice was respectful, and he smoothed each word with his tongue before letting go.
“Anita sometimes reads the newspapers,” Ma said, and then became quiet at the absurdity of her words.
The food came and we ate quickly and mostly in silence, though all of us made sure to leave a bit on the plate to show how full we were.
Rajinder’s mother talked the most during the meal. She told us that Rajinder had always been favored over his older brother — a beautiful, hardworking boy who obeyed his mother like God Ram — and how Rajinder had paid her back by being the first in the family to leave the farm in Bursa to attend college, where he got a master’s, and by becoming a bank officer. To get to work from Bursa he had to commute two and a half hours every day. This was very strenuous, she said, and Rajinder had long ago reached the age for marriage, so he wished to set up a household in the city. “We want a city girl,” his mother said loudly, as if boasting of her modernity. “With an education but a strong respect for tradition.”
“Asha, Anita’s younger sister, is finishing her Ph.D. in molecular biology and might be going to America in a year, for further studies,” Ma said slowly, almost accidentally. She was a short, dark woman, so thin that her skin hung loose. “Two of my brothers are doctors; so is one sister. And I have one brother who is an engineer. I wanted Anita to be a doctor, but she was lazy and did not study.” My mother and I loved each other, but sometimes something inside her would slip, and she would attack me, and she was so clever and I loved her so much that all I could do was feel helpless.
Dinner ended and I still had not spoken. When Rajinder said he did not want any dessert, I asked, “Do you like movies?” It was the only question I could think of, and I had felt pressured by Pitaji’s stares.
“A little,” Rajinder said seriously. After a pause he asked, “And you, do you like movies?”
“Yes,” I said, and then, to be daring and to assert my personality, I added, “very much.”
Two days after that Pitaji asked me if I would mind marrying Rajinder, and because I could not think of any reason not to, I said all right. Still, I did not think we would marry. Something would come up. His family might decide that my B.A. and B.Ed. were not enough, or Rajinder might suddenly announce that he was in love with his typist.
The engagement occurred a month later, and although I was not allowed to attend the ceremony, Asha was, and she described everything. Rajinder sat cross-legged before the pandit and the holy fire. Pitaji’s pants were too tight for him to fold his legs, and he had to keep a foot on either side of the fire. Ashok and his mother were on either side of Rajinder. The small pink room was crowded with Rajinder’s aunts and uncles. The uncles, Asha said, were unshaven and smelled faintly of manure. The pandit chanted in Sanskrit and at certain points motioned for Pitaji to tie a red thread around Rajinder’s right wrist and to place a packet of one hundred five-rupee bills in his lap.
Only then, as Asha, grinning, described the ceremony, did I realize that I would actually marry Rajinder. I was shocked. I seemed to be standing outside myself, a stranger, looking at two women, Anita and Asha, sitting on a brown sofa in a wide, bright room. We were two women, both of whom would cry if slapped, laugh if tickled. But one was doing her Ph.D. and possibly going to America, and the other, her elder sister, who was slow in school, was now going to marry and have children and grow old. Why will she go to America and I stay here? I wanted to demand of someone, anyone. Why, when Pitaji took us out of school, saying what good was education for girls, did Asha, then only in third grade, go and re-enroll herself, while I waited for Pitaji to change his mind? I felt so sad I could not even hate Asha for her thoughtlessness.
As the days until the wedding evaporated, I had difficulty sleeping, and sometimes everything was lost in a sudden brightness. Often I woke at night and thought the engagement was a dream. Ma and Pitaji mentioned the marriage only in connection with the shopping involved. Once, Asha asked what I was feeling about the marriage, and I said, “What do you care?”
When I placed the necklace of marigolds around Rajinder’s neck, to seal our marriage, I brushed my hand against his neck to confirm the reality of his presence. The pandit recited Sanskrit verses, occasionally pouring clarified butter into the holy fire, which we had just circled seven times. It is done, I thought. I am married now. I felt no different. I was wearing a bright red silk sari and could smell the sourness of new cloth. People were surrounding us, many people. Movie songs blared over the loudspeakers. On the ground was a red-and-black-striped carpet. The tent above us had the same stripes. Rajinder draped a garland around my neck and everyone began cheering. Their voices smothered the rumble of the night’s traffic passing on the road outside the alley.
Although the celebration lasted another six hours, ending at about one in the morning, I did not remember most of it until many years later. I did not remember the two red thrones on which we sat and received the congratulations of women in pretty silk saris and men wearing handsome pants and shirts. I know about the cold only because of the photos showing vapor coming from people’s mouths as they spoke. I still do not remember what I thought as I sat there. For nearly eight years I did not remember Ashok and his mother, Ma, Pitaji, and Asha getting in the car with us to go to the temple hostel where the people from Rajinder’s side were housed. Nor did I remember walking through the long halls, with moisture on the once-white walls, and seeing in rooms, long and wide, people sleeping on cots, mattresses without frames, blankets folded twice before being laid down. I did not remember all this until one evening eight years later, while wandering through Kamla Nagar market searching for a dress for Asha’s first daughter. I was standing on the sidewalk looking at a stall display of hairbands and thinking of Asha’s husband, a tall, yellow-haired American with a soft, open face, who I felt had made Asha happier and gentler. And then I began crying. People brushed past, trying to ignore me. I was so alone. I was thirty-three years old and so alone that I wanted to sit down on the sidewalk until someone came and picked me up.
I did remember Rajinder’s opening the blue door to the room where we would spend our wedding night. Before we entered, we separated for a moment. Rajinder touched his mother’s feet with his right hand and then touched his forehead with that hand. His mother embraced him. I did the same with each of my parents. As Ma held me, she whispered, “Earlier your father got drunk like the pig he is.” Then Pitaji put his arms around me and said, “I love you,” in English.
The English was what made me cry, even though everyone thought it was the grief of parting. The words reminded me of how Pitaji came home drunk after work once or twice a month and Ma, thin arms folded across her chest, stood in the doorway of his bedroom and watched him fumbling to undress. When I was young, he held me in his lap those nights, his arm tight around my waist, and spoke into my ear in English, as if to prove that he was sober. He would say, “No one loves me. You love me, don’t you, my little sun-ripened mango? I try to be good. I work all day, but no one loves me.” As he spoke, he rocked in place. He would be watching Ma to make sure she heard. Gradually his voice would become husky. He would cry slowly, gently, and when the tears began to come, he would let me go and continue rocking, lost gratefully in his own sadness. Sometimes he turned out the lights and cried silently in the dark for a half hour or more. Then he locked the door to his room and slept.
Those nights Ma offered dinner without speaking. Later she told her own story. But she did not cry, and although Ma knew how to let her voice falter as if the pain were too much to speak of, and her face crumpled with sorrow, I was more impressed by Pitaji’s tears. Ma’s story included some beautiful lines. Lines like “In higher secondary a teacher said, ‘In seven years all the cells in our body change.’ So when Baby died, I thought, It will be all right. In seven years none of me will have touched Baby.” Other lines were as ne, but this was Asha’s favorite. It might have been what first interested her in microbiology. Ma would not eat dinner, but she sat with us on the floor and, leaning forward, told us how she had loved Pitaji once, but after Baby got sick and she kept sending telegrams to Beri for Pitaji to come home and he did not, she did not send a telegram about Baby’s death. “What could he do,” she would say, looking at the floor, “although he always cries so handsomely?” I was dazzled by her words — calling his tears handsome — in comparison with which Pitaji’s ramblings appeared inept. But the grief of the tears seemed irrefutable. And because Ma loved Asha more than she did me, I was less compassionate toward her. When Pitaji awoke and asked for water to dissolve the herbs and medicines he took to make himself vomit, I obeyed readily. When Pitaji spoke of love on my wedding night, the soft, wet vowels of his vomiting were what I remembered.
Rajinder closed and bolted the door. A double bed was in the corner of the room and near it a small table with a jug of water and two glasses. The room had yellow walls and smelled faintly of mildew. I stopped crying and suddenly felt very calm. I stood in the center of the room, a fold of the sari covering my head and falling before my eyes. I thought, I will just say this has been a terrible mistake. Rajinder lifted the sari’s fold and, looking into my eyes, said he was very pleased to marry me. He was wearing a white silk kurta with tiny flowers embroidered around the neck and gold studs for buttons. He led me to the bed with his hand on my elbow and with a light squeeze let me know he wanted me to sit. He took off the loose shirt and suddenly looked small. No, wait. I must tell you, I said. His stomach drooped. What an ugly man, I thought. No. Wait, I said. He did not hear or I did not say. Louder. You are a very nice man, I am sure. The hard bed with the white sheet dotted with rose petals. The hands that undid the blouse and were disappointed by my small breasts. The ceiling was so far away. The moisture between my legs like breath on glass. Rajinder put his kurta back on and poured himself some water and then thought to offer me some.
Sleep was there, cool and dark, as soon as I closed my eyes. But around eight in the morning, when Rajinder shook me awake, I was exhausted. The door to our room was open, and I saw one of Rajinder’s cousins, a fat, hairy man with a towel around his waist, walk past to the bathroom. He looked in and smiled broadly, and I felt ashamed. I was glad I had gotten up at some point in the night and wrapped the sari on again. I had not felt cold, but I had wanted to be completely covered.
Rajinder, Ashok, their mother, and I had breakfast in our room. We sat around the small table and ate rice and yogurt. I wanted to sleep. I wanted to tell them to go away, to stop talking about who had come last night and brought what, and who had not but might still be expected to send a gift, tell them they were boring, foolish people. Ashok and his mother spoke, while Rajinder just nodded. Their words were indistinct, as if coming from across a wide room, and I felt I was dreaming them. I wanted to close my eyes and rest my head on the table. “You eat like a bird,” Rajinder’s mother said, looking at me and smiling.
After breakfast we visited a widowed aunt of Rajinder’s who had been unable to attend the wedding because of arthritis. She lived in a two-room flat covered with posters of gods and smelling of mothballs and old sweat. As she spoke of how carpenters and cobblers were moving in from the villages and passing themselves off as upper-castes, she drooled from the corners of her mouth. I was silent, except for when she asked me about my education and what dishes I liked to cook. As we left, she said, “A thousand years. A thousand children,” and pressed fifty-one rupees into Rajinder’s hands.
Then there was the long bus ride to Bursa. The roads were so bad that I kept being jolted awake, and my sleep became so fractured that I dreamed of the bus ride and being awakened. And in the village I saw grimy hens peering into the well, and women for whom I posed demurely in the courtyard. They sat in a circle around me and murmured compliments. My head and eyes were covered as they had been the night before, and as I stared at the floor, I fell asleep. I woke an hour later to their praise of my modesty. That night, in the dark room at the rear of the house, I was awakened by Rajinder’s digging between my legs, and although he tried to be gentle, I just wished it over. His face, flat and distorted, was above me, and his hands raised my nipples cruelly, resentful of being cheated, even though I never heard anger in Rajinder’s voice. He was always polite. Even in bed he was formal. “Could you get on all fours, please?”
So heavy and still did I feel on the first night in our new rooftop home, watching Rajinder sleep on the moonlight-soaked mattress, that I wanted the earth and sky to stop turning and for it always to be night. I did not want dawn to come and the day’s activities to start again. I did not want to have to think and react to the world. I fell asleep then, only to wake in panic an hour later at the thought of the obscure life I would lead with Rajinder. Think slowly, I told myself, looking at Rajinder asleep with an arm thrown over his eyes. Slowly. I remembered the year between my B.A. and B.Ed., when, through influence, I got a job as a typist in a candle factory. For nearly a month, upon reaching home after work, I wanted to cry, for I was terrified at the idea of giving up eight hours a day, a third of my life, to typing letters concerning supplies of wax. And then one day I noticed that I no longer felt afraid. I had learned to stop thinking. I floated above the days.
In the morning I had a fever, and the stillness it brought with it spread into the coming days. It hardened around me, so that I did not feel as if I were the one making love or cooking dinner or going home to see Ma and Pitaji and behaving there as I always had. No one guessed it was not me. Nothing could break through the stillness, not even Rajinder’s learning to caress me before parting my legs, or my growing to know all the turns of the colony’s alleys and the shopkeepers calling me by name.
Winter turned into spring, and the trees in the park swelled green. Rajinder was thoughtful and generous. Traveling for conferences to Baroda, Madras, Jaipur, Bangalore, he always brought back saris or other gifts. The week I had malaria, he came home every lunch hour and cooked gruel for me. On my twenty-sixth birthday he took me to the Taj Mahal, and arranged for my family to be hidden in the flat when we returned in the evening. What a good man, I thought then, watching him standing proudly in a corner. What a good man, I thought, and was frightened, for that was not enough. I knew I needed something else, but I did not know what. Being his wife was not so bad. He did not make me do anything I did not want to, except make love, and even that was sometimes pleasant. I did not mind his being in the flat, and being alone is difficult. When he was away on his trips, I did not miss him, and he, I think, did not miss me, for he never mentioned it.
Summer came, and hot winds swept up from the Rajasthani deserts. The old cows that wander unattended on Delhi’s streets began to die. The corpses lay untouched for a week sometimes; their tongues swelled and, cracking open the jaw, stuck out absurdly.
The heat was like a high-pitched buzzing that formed a film between flesh and bone, so that my skin felt thick and rubbery and I wished that I could just peel it off. I woke at four every morning to have an hour when breathing air would not be like inhaling liquid. By five the eastern edge of the sky was too bright to look at, even though the sun had yet to appear. I bathed both before and after breakfast and again after doing laundry but before lunch. As June progressed, and the very air seemed to whine under the heat’s stress, I stopped eating lunch. Around two, before taking my nap, I would pour a few mugs of water on my head. I liked to lie on the bed imagining that the monsoon had come. Sometimes this made me sad, for the smell of wet earth and the sound of rain have always made me feel as if I have been waiting for someone all my life and that person has not yet come. I dreamed often of living near the sea, in a house with a sloping red roof and bright blue window frames, and woke happy, hearing water on sand.
And so the summer passed, slowly and vengefully, until the last week of June, when The Times of India began its countdown to the monsoon, and I woke one afternoon in love with my husband.
I had returned home that day after spending two weeks with my parents. Pitaji had had a mild heart attack, and I took turns with Ma and Asha being with him in Safdarjung Hospital. The heart attack was no surprise, for Pitaji had become so fat that even his largest shirts had to be worn unbuttoned. So when I opened the door late one night and saw Asha with her fist up, ready to start banging again, I did not have to be told that Pitaji had woken screaming that his heart was breaking.
While I hurried a sari and blouse into a plastic bag, Asha leaned against a wall of our bedroom, drinking water. It was three. Rajinder, in his undershirt and pajama pants, sat on the bed’s edge and stared at the floor. I felt no fear, perhaps because Asha had said the heart attack was not so bad, or perhaps because I just did not care. The rushing and the banging on the doors appeared to be the properly melodramatic behavior when one’s father might be dying.
An auto rickshaw was waiting for us downstairs, triangular, small, with plasticized cloth covering its frame. It seemed like a vehicle for desperate people. Before getting in, I looked up and saw Rajinder. He was leaning against the railing. The moon was yellow and uneven behind him. I waved and he waved back. Such formalities, I thought, and then we were off, racing through dark, abandoned streets.
“Ma’s fine. He screamed so loud,” Asha said. She is a few inches taller than I am, and although she too is not pretty, she uses makeup that gives angles to her round face. Asha sat slightly turned on the seat so that she could face me. “A thousand times we told him, lose weight,” she said, shaking her head impatiently. “When the doctor gave him that diet, he said, ‘Is that before or after breakfast?’” She paused and added in a tight whisper, “He’s laughing now.”
I felt lonely sitting there while the city was silent and dark and we talked of our father without concern. “He wants to die,” I said softly. I enjoyed saying such serious words. “He is so unhappy. I think our hopes are made when we are young, and we can never adjust them to the real world. He was nearly national champion in wrestling, and for the last thirty-seven years he has been examining government schools to see that they have the right PE equipment. He loves eating, and that is as fine a way to die as any.”
“If he wants to die, wonderful; I don’t like him. But why is he making it difficult for us?”
Her directness shocked me and made me feel that my sentimentality was dishonest. The night air was still bitter from the evening traffic. “He is a good man,” I said unsteadily.
“The way he treated us all. Ma is like a slave.”
“They are just not good together. It’s no one’s fault.”
“How can it be no one’s fault?”
“His father was an alcoholic.”
“How long can you use your parents as an excuse?”
I did not respond at first, for I thought Asha might be saying this because I had always used Ma and Pitaji to explain away my failures. Then I said, “Look how good he is compared with his brothers. He must have had something good inside that let him be gentler than them. We should love him for that part alone.”
“That’s what he is relying on. It’s a big world. A lot of people are worth loving. Why love someone mediocre?”
Broken glass was in the hallways of the hospital, and someone had urinated in the elevator. When we came into the yellow room that Pitaji shared with five other men, he was asleep. His face looked like a shiny brown stone. He was on the bed nearest the window. Ma sat at the foot of his bed, her back to us, looking out at the fading night.
“He will be all right,” I said.
Turning toward us, Ma said, “When he goes, he wants to make sure we all hurt.” She was crying. “I thought I did not love him, but you can’t live this long with a person and not love just a bit. He knew that. When they were bringing him here, he said, ‘See what you have done, demoness?’”
Asha took Ma away, still crying. I spent the rest of the night dozing next to his bed.
We fell into a pattern. Ma usually came in the morning, around eight, and I replaced her, hours later. Asha would take my place at three and stay until six, and then Ma’s brother or his sons would stay until Ma returned.
I had thought I would be afraid of being in the hospital, but it was very peaceful. Pitaji slept most of every day and night because of the medicines, waking up every now and then to ask for water and quickly falling asleep again. A nice boy named Rajeeve, who also was staying with his father, told me funny stories about his family. At night Asha and I slept on adjacent cots on the roof. Before she went to bed, she read five pages of an English dictionary. She had been accepted into a postdoctoral program in America. She did not brag about it as I would have. Like Ma, Asha worked very hard, as if that were the only way to live and one needn’t talk about it, and as if, like Ma, she assumed that we were all equally fortunate. But sometimes Asha would shout a word at me — “Alluvial” — and then look at me as if she was waiting for a response. Once, Rajinder came to drop off some clothes, but I was away. I did not see him or talk with him for the two weeks.
Sometimes Pitaji could not sleep and he would tell me stories of his father, a schoolteacher, who would take Pitaji with him to the saloon, so that someone would be there to guide him home when he was drunk. Pitaji was eight or nine then. His mother beat him for accompanying Dadaji, but Pitaji, his breath sounding as if it were coming through a wet cloth, said that he was afraid Dadaji would be made fun of if he walked home alone. Pitaji told the story quietly, as if he were talking about someone else, and as soon as he finished, he changed the subject. I could not tell whether Pitaji was being modest or was manipulating me by pretending to be modest.
He slept most of the day, and I sat beside him, listening to his little green transistor radio. The June sun filled half the sky, and the groundskeeper walked around the courtyard of the hospital in wide circles with a water bag as large as a man’s body slung over one shoulder. He was sprinkling water to keep the dust settled. Sometimes I hummed along to Lata Mangeshkar or Mohammed Ra singing that grief is no letter to be passed around to whoever wants to read.
There were afternoons when Pitaji became restless and whispered conspiratorially that he had always loved me most. Watching his face, puffy from the drugs, his nose broad and covered with blackheads, as he said again that Ma did not talk to him or that Asha was indifferent to his suffering, I felt exhausted. When he complained to Asha, “Your mother doesn’t talk to me,” she answered, “Maybe you aren’t interesting.”
Once, four or five days before we took him home, as he was complaining, I got up from the chair and went to look out the window. Beyond the courtyard was a string of yellow-and-black auto rickshaws waiting under eucalyptus trees. I wanted desperately for Asha to come, so that I could leave, and bathe, and lie down to dream of a house with a red-tiled roof near the sea. “You must forgive me,” Pitaji said as I looked out the window. I was surprised, for I could not remember his ever apologizing. “I sometimes forget that I will die soon and so act like a man who has many years left.” I felt frightened, for I suddenly wanted to love him but could not trust him enough.
From then until we went home, Pitaji spoke little. Once, I forgot to bring his lunch from home and he did not complain, whereas before he would have screamed and tried to make me feel guilty. A few times he began crying to himself for no reason, and when I asked why, he did not answer.
Around eleven the day Pitaji was released, an ambulance carried Ma, Pitaji, and me to the Old Vegetable Market. Two orderlies, muscular men in white uniforms, carried him on a stretcher up three flights of stairs into the flat. The flat had four rooms and was part of a circle of dilapidated buildings that shared a courtyard. Fourteen or fifteen people turned out to watch Pitaji’s return. Some of the very old women, sitting on cots in the courtyard, asked who Pitaji was, although he had lived there for twenty years. A few children climbed into the ambulance and played with the horn until they were chased out.
The orderlies laid Pitaji on the cot in his bedroom and left.
The room was small and dark, smelling faintly of the kerosene with which the bookshelves were treated every other week to prevent termites. Traveling had tired him, and he fell asleep quickly. He woke as I was about to leave. Ma and I were speaking in whispers outside his bedroom.
“I am used to his screaming,” Ma said. “He won’t get any greasy food here. But once he can walk . . .”
“He seems to have changed.”
“Right now he’s afraid. Give him a few days and he’ll return to normal. People can’t change, even if they want to.”
“What are you saying about me?” Pitaji tried to call out, but his voice was like wind on dry grass.
“You want something?” Ma asked.
As I started toward the fridge, Ma said, “Nothing cold.” The clay pot held only enough for one glass. I knelt beside the cot and helped Pitaji rise to a forty-five-degree angle. His heaviness and the weakness of his body moved me. Like a baby holding a bottle, Pitaji held the glass with both hands and made sucking noises as he drank. I lowered him when his shoulder muscles slackened. His eyes were red, and they moved about the room slowly. I wondered whether I could safely love him if I did not reveal my feelings.
“More?” he asked.
“Only fridge water,” I said. Ma was clattering in the kitchen. “I am going home.”
“Rajinder is good?” He looked at the ceiling while speaking. “Yes,” I said. A handkerchief of light covered his face, and faint blue veins, like delicate, almost translucent roots, showed through the skin of his forehead. “The results for his exam came,” I told him. “He will be promoted. He was second in Delhi.” Pitaji closed his eyes. “Are you hurting?” I asked.
“I feel tired.”
I, too, felt tired. I did not know what to do with my new love or whether it would last. “That will pass, the doctor said. Why don’t you sleep?”
“I don’t want to,” he said loudly, and my love drew back.
“I must go,” I said, but made no move to.
“Forgive me,” he said, and again I was surprised. “I am not worried usually, but I get frightened sometimes. Sometimes I dream that the heaviness is dirt. What an awful thing to be a Muslim or a Christian.” He spoke slowly, and I felt my love returning. “Once, I dreamed of Baby’s ghost.”
“He was eight or nine and did not recognize me. He did not look like me. I was surprised, because he was my son and I had always expected him to look like me.”
I felt exhausted. Something about the story was both awkward and polished, which indicated deceit. But Pitaji never lied completely, and the tiring part was not knowing. “God will forgive you,” I said. But why should he? I thought. Why do people always think hurting others is all right, as long as they hurt themselves as well?
“Your mother has not.”
I placed my hand on his, knowing that I was already in the trap. “Shhh.”
“At your birthday, when she sang, I said, ‘If you sing like that for me every day, I will love you forever.’”
“She loves you. She worries about you.”
“That’s not the same. When I tell Asha this, she tells me I’m sentimental. Ratha loved me once. But she cannot forgive. What happened so long ago, she cannot forgive.” He was blinking rapidly, preparing to cry. “But that is a lie. She does not love me because” — and he began crying without making a sound — “I did not love her for so long.”
“Shhh. She loves you. She was just saying, ‘Oh, I love him so. I hope he gets better, for I love him so.’”
“Ratha could have loved me a little. She could have loved me twenty for my eleven.” He was sobbing.
“Shhh. Shhh. Shhh.” I wanted to run away, far away, and be someone else.
The sleep that afternoon was like falling. I lay down, closed my eyes, and plummeted. I woke as suddenly, without any half memories of dreams, into a silence that meant that the power was gone, and the ceiling fan was still, and the fridge was slowly warming.
It was cool, I noticed, unsurprised by the monsoon’s approach — for I was in love. The window curtains stirred, revealing TV antennas and distant gray clouds and a few sparrows wheeling in the air. The sheet lay bunched at my feet. I felt gigantic. My legs stretched thousands of miles; my head rested in the Himalayas and my breath brought the world rain. If I stood up, I would scrape against the sky. But I was small and compact and distilled, too. I am in love, I thought, and a raspy voice echoed the words in my head, causing me to panic and lose my sense of omnipotence for a moment. I will love Rajinder slowly and carefully and cunningly, I thought, and suddenly felt peaceful again, as if I were a lake and the world could only form ripples on my surface, while the calm beneath continued in solitude. Time seemed endless, and I would surely have the minutes and seconds needed to plan a method of preserving this love, like the feeling in your stomach when you are in a car going swiftly down a hill. Don’t worry, I thought, and I no longer did. My mind obeyed me limply, as if a terrible exhaustion had worn away all rebellion.
I got up and swung my legs off the bed. I was surprised that my love was not disturbed by my physical movements. I walked out onto the roof. The wind ruffled the treetops and small, gray clouds slid across the cool, pale sky. On the street, eight or nine young boys played cricket. The school year had just started, and the children played desperately, as if they must run faster, leap higher, to recapture the hours spent indoors.
Tell me your stories, I would ask him. Pour them into me, so that I know everything you have ever loved or been scared of or laughed at. But thinking this, I became uneasy and feared that when I actually saw him, my love would fade and I would find my tongue thick and unresponsive. What should I say? I woke this afternoon in love with you. I love you too, he would answer. No, no, you see, I really love you. I love you so much that I think anything is possible, that I will live forever. Oh, he would say, and I would feel my love rush out of me.
I must say nothing at first, I decided. Slowly I will win his love. I will spoil him, and he will fall in love with me. And as long as he loves me, I will be able to love him. I will love him like a camera that closes at too much light and opens at too little, so his blemishes will never mar my love.
I watched the cricket game to the end. I felt very happy standing there, as if I had just discovered some profound secret. When the children dispersed, around five, I knew Rajinder would be home soon.
I bathed and changed into new clothes. I stood before the small mirror in the armoire as I dressed. Uneven brown aureoles, a flat stomach, the veins in my feet like pen marks. Will this be enough? I wondered. Once he loves me, I told myself. I lifted my arms and tried to smell the plantlike odor of my perspiration. I wore a bright-red cotton sari. What will I say first? Namaste — How was your day? With the informal “you.” How was your day? The words felt strange, for I had never before used the informal with him. I had, as a show of modesty, never even used his name, except on the night before my wedding, when I said it over and over to myself to see how it felt — like nothing. Now when I said “Rajinder,” the three syllables had too many edges, and again I doubted that he would love me. “Rajinder, Rajinder,” I said rapidly several times, until it no longer felt strange. He will love me because to do otherwise would be too lonely, because I will love him so. I heard a scooter stopping outside the building and knew that he had come home.
My stomach was small and hard as I walked onto the roof. The dark clouds made it appear as if it were seven instead of five thirty. I saw him roll the scooter into the courtyard and I felt happy. He parked the scooter and took off his gray helmet. He combed his hair carefully to hide the growing bald spot. The deliberateness of the way he tucked the comb into his back pocket overwhelmed me with tenderness. We will love each other gently and carefully, I thought.
I waited for him to rise out of the stairwell. The wind made my petticoat, drying on the clothesline, go clap, clap. I was smiling rigidly. How was your day? How was your day? Was your day good? Don’t be so afraid, I told myself. What does it matter how you say hello? Tomorrow will come, and the day after, and the day after that.
His steps sounded like a shuffle. Leather rubbing against stone. Something forlorn and steady in the sound made me feel as if I were twenty years older and this were a game I should stop or I might get hurt. Rajinder, Rajinder, Rajinder, how are you?
First the head: oval, high forehead, handsome eyebrows. Then the not so broad but not so narrow shoulders. The top two buttons of the cream shirt were opened, revealing an undershirt and some hair. The two weeks had not changed him, yet seeing him, I felt as if he were somehow different, denser.
“How was your day?” I asked him, while he was still in the stairwell.
“All right,” he said, stepping onto the balcony. He smiled, and I felt happy. His helmet was in his left hand and he had a plastic bag of mangoes in his right. “When did you get home?” The “you” was informal, and I felt a surge of relief. He will not resist, I thought.
“A little after three.”
I followed him into the bedroom. He placed the helmet on the windowsill and the mangoes in the refrigerator. His careful way of folding the plastic bag before placing it in the basket on top of the refrigerator moved me.
“Your father is fine?”
I did not say anything.
Rajinder walked to the sink on the outside bathroom wall.
I stood in the bedroom doorway and watched him wash his hands and face with soap. Before putting the chunk of soap down, he rinsed it of foam, and only then did he pour water on himself. He used a thin washcloth hanging on a nearby hook for drying.
“Yes,” I finally answered.
“What did the doctor say?” he asked, turning toward me.
He is like a black diamond, I thought.
She said, I love you. “She said he must lose weight and watch what he eats. Nothing fattening. That he should rest at first and then start exercising. Walking would be best.”
I watched Rajinder hang his shirt by the collar tips on the clothesline, and suddenly felt sad at the rigorous attention to detail necessary to preserve love. Perhaps love is different in other countries, I thought, where the climate is cooler, where a woman can say her husband’s name, where the power does not go out every day, where not every clerk demands a bribe. That must be a different type of love, I thought, where one can be careless.
“It will rain tonight,” he said, looking at the sky. The eucalyptus trees shook their heads side to side. “The rain always makes me feel as if I am waiting for someone,” I said, and then regretted saying it, for Rajinder was not paying attention, and perhaps it could have been said better. “Why don’t you sit on the balcony, and I will make sherbet to drink?”
He took a chair and the newspaper with him. The fridge water was warm, and I felt sad again at the need for constant vigilance. I made the drink and gave him his glass. I placed mine on the floor and went to get a chair. A fruit seller passed by, calling out in a reedy voice, “Sweet, sweet mangoes. Sweeter than first love.” On the roof directly across, a boy seven or eight years old was trying to fly a large purple kite. I sat down beside Rajinder and waited for him to look up so that I could interrupt his reading. When Rajinder looked away from the paper to take a sip of sherbet, I asked, “Did you fly kites?”
“A little,” he answered, looking at the boy. “Ashok bought some with the money he earned, and he would let me fly them sometimes.” The fact that his father had died when he was young made me hopeful, for I thought that one must suffer and be lonely before one can love.
“Do you like Ashok?”
“He is my brother,” he answered, shrugging and looking at the newspaper. He took a sip of the sherbet. I felt hurt, as if he had reprimanded me.
I waited until seven for the power to return; then I gave up and started to prepare dinner in the dark. I sat beside Rajinder until then. I felt happy and excited and frightened being beside him. We spoke about Asha’s going to America, though Rajinder did not want to talk about this. Rajinder had been the most educated member of his and my family and resented the idea that Asha would soon assume that position.
As I cooked in the kitchen, Rajinder sat on the balcony and listened to the radio. “This is Akashwani,” the announcer said, and then music like horses racing played whenever a new program was about to start. It was very hot in the kitchen, and every now and then I stepped onto the roof to look at the curve of Rajinder’s neck and confirm that the tenderness was still there.
We ate in the living room. Rajinder chewed slowly and was mostly silent. Once he complimented me on my cooking. “What are you thinking?” I asked. He appeared not to have heard. Tell me! Tell me! Tell me! I thought, and was shocked by the urgency I felt.
A candle on the television made pillars of shadows rise and collapse on the walls. I searched for something to start a conversation with. “Pitaji began crying when I left.”
“You could have stayed a few more days,” he said.
“I did not want to.” I thought of adding, “I missed you,” but that would have been a lie, and I would have felt embarrassed saying it, when he had not missed me.
Rajinder mixed black pepper with his yogurt. “Did you tell him you would visit soon?”
“No. I think he was crying because he was lonely.”
“He should have more courage.” Rajinder did not like Pitaji, thought him weak-willed, although Rajinder had never told me that. He knew Pitaji drank, but Rajinder never referred to this, for which I was grateful. “He is old and must remember that shadows creep into one’s heart at his age.” The shutter of a bedroom window began slamming, and I got up to latch it shut.
I washed the dishes while Rajinder bathed. When he came out, dressed in his white kurta pajamas, with his hair slicked back, I was standing near the railing at the roof’s edge, looking out beyond the darkness of our neighborhood at a distant ribbon of light. I was tired from the nervousness I had been feeling all evening. Rajinder came up behind me and asked, “Won’t you bathe?” I suddenly doubted my ability to guard my love. Bathe so we can have sex. His words were too deliberately full of the unsaid, and so felt vulgar. I wondered if I had the courage to say no and realized I didn’t. What kind of love can we have? I thought.
I said, “In a little while. Comedy hour is about to start.” We sat down on our chairs with the radio between us and listened to Maurya’s whiny voice. This week he had gotten involved with criminals who wanted to go to jail to collect the reward on themselves. The canned laughter gusted from several flats. When the music of the racing horses marked the close of the show, I felt hopeful again, and thought Rajinder looked very handsome in his kurta pajamas.
I bathed carefully, pouring mug after mug of cold water over myself until my fingertips were wrinkled and my nipples erect. The candlelight made the bathroom orange and my skin copper. I washed my pubis carefully to make sure no smell remained from urinating. Rubbing myself dry, I became aroused. I wore the red sari again, with a new blouse, and no bra, so that my nipples would show.
I came and stood beside Rajinder, my arm brushing against his kurta sleeve. Every now and then a raindrop fell, and I wondered if I were imagining it. On balconies and roofs all around us I could see the dim figures of men, women, and children waiting for the first rain. “You look pretty,” he said. Somewhere Lata Mangeshkar sang with a static-induced huskiness. The street was silent. Even the children were hushed. As the wind picked up, Rajinder said, “Let’s close the windows.”
The wind coursed along the floor, upsetting newspapers and climbing the walls to swing on curtains. A candle stood on the refrigerator. As I leaned over to pull a window shut, Rajinder pressed against me and cupped my right breast. I felt a shock of desire pass through me. As I walked around the rooms shutting windows, he touched my buttocks, pubis, stomach.
When the last window was closed, I waited for a moment before turning around, because I knew he wanted me to turn around quickly. He pulled me close, with his hands on my buttocks. I took his tongue in my mouth. We kissed like this for a long time.
The rain began falling, and we heard a roar from the people on the roofs nearby. “The clothes,” Rajinder said, and pulled away.
We ran out. We could barely see each other. Lightning bursts would illuminate an eye, an arm, some teeth, and then darkness would come again. We jerked the clothes off and let the pins fall to the ground. We deliberately brushed roughly against each other. The raindrops were like thorns, and we began laughing. Rajinder’s shirt had wrapped itself around and around the clothesline. Wiping his face, he knocked his glasses off. As I saw him crouch and fumble around helplessly for them, I felt such tenderness that I knew I would never love him as much as I did at that moment. “The wind in the trees,” I cried out, “it sounds like the sea.”
We slowly wandered back inside, kissing all the while. He entered me like a sigh. He suckled on me and moved back and forth and side to side, and I felt myself growing warm and loose. He sucked on my nipples and held my waist with both hands. We made love gently at first, but as we both neared climax, Rajinder began stabbing me with his penis and I came in waves so strong that I felt myself vanishing. When Rajinder sank on top of me, I kept saying, “I love you. I love you.”
“I love you too,” he answered. Outside, the rain came in sheets and the thunder was like explosions in caverns.
The candle had gone out while we made love, and Rajinder got up to light it. He drank some water and then lay down beside me. I wanted some water too, but did not want to say anything that would make him feel bad about his thoughtlessness. “I’ll be getting promoted soon. Minaji loves me,” Rajinder said. I rolled onto my side to look at him. He had his arms folded across his chest. “Yesterday he said, ‘Come, Rajinderji, let us go write your confidential report.’” I put my hand on his stomach, and Rajinder said, “Don’t,” and pushed it away. “I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know whether that would be good, sir.’” He laughed and patted me on the back. “What a nincompoop. If it weren’t for the quotas, he would never be manager.” Rajinder chuckled. “I’ll be the youngest bank manager in Delhi.” I felt cold and tugged a sheet over our legs. “In college I had a schedule for where I wanted to be by the time I was thirty. By twenty-two I became an officer; soon I’ll be a manager. I wanted a car, and we’ll have that in a year. I wanted a wife, and I have that.”
“You are so smart.”
“Some people in college were smarter. But I knew exactly what I wanted. A life is like a house. One has to plan carefully where all the furniture will go.”
“Did you plan me as your wife?” I asked, smiling.
“No. I had wanted at least an M.A., and someone who worked, but Mummy didn’t approve of a daughter-in-law who worked. I was willing to change my requirements. Because I believe in moderation, I was successful. Everything in its place. And pay for everything. Other people got caught up in love and friendship. I’ve always felt that these things only became a big deal because of the movies.”
“What do you mean? You love me and your mother, don’t you?”
“There are so many people in the world that it is hard not to think that there are others you could love more.”
Seeing the shock on my face, he quickly added, “Of course I love you. I just try not to be too emotional about it.”
The candle’s shadows on the wall were like the wavery bands formed by light reflected off water. “We might even be able to get a foreign car.”
The second time he took me that night, it was from behind. He pressed down heavily on my back and grabbed my breasts.
I woke at four or five. The rain scratched against the windows and a light like blue milk shone along the edges of the door. I was cold and tried to wrap myself in the sheet, but it was not large enough.