Tanay by Sachin Kundalkar
A story of the beginning of a love triangle
INTRODUCTION BY LUCIE SHELLY
When Cobalt Blue first came across my desk, the summary mentioned a love triangle between a gay brother, a rebellious sister, and lodger in their home in India. After reading, I was struck by another piercing triangle, one formed by the separate powers of yearning, secrecy, and insecurity. This triangle would probably be a little bottom-heavy, with the weighty foundation of furtive anxiety, and desire stretching and sharpening the top. We have all felt a need for someone, and, in one way or another, we have all felt it necessary — essential, even — to keep that need hidden. But perhaps not to quite the same degree as Tanay, who narrates this excerpt from Sachin Kundalkar’s first novel, newly translated from the original Marathi.
Tanay begins with one of his mantras: “That you should not be here when something we’ve both wanted happens is no new thing for me.” There is a specific kind of loneliness in having to hide love, particularly love that was thought impossible in the first place. Tanay is forced to keep his relationship with the artist a reality that only they inhabit, so of course his feelings are riven with insecurity: “After we made love, I felt a delicious lassitude creeping over me. When consciousness returned, I realized that you were still with me; you hadn’t turned your back and edged away.” Every relationship has its vulnerable spots, but Kundalkar shows us that it isn’t always breakage that changes a connection, it is, too, the addition of something other.
Associate Editor, Recommended Reading, for The New Press
Tanay by Sachin Kundalkar
That you should not be here when something we’ve both wanted happens is no new thing for me. Today too, as always, you’re not here.
The house is quiet. I’m alone at home. For a while, I basked in bed in the shifting arabesques of light diffusing through the leaves of the tagar. Then I got up slowly, and went down to the backyard, and sprawled on the low wall for a single moment. The silence made me feel like a stranger in my own home.
I walked around the house quietly, as a stranger might. The chirping of sparrows filled the kitchen. The other rooms were quiet, empty, forsaken. In the front room, the newspaper lay like a tent in the middle of the floor, where it had been dropped. At the door, a packet of flowers to appease the gods and a bag of milk.
Then I realized I was not alone. From their photograph, Aaji and Ajoba eyed me in utter grandparental disbelief. I took my coffee to the middle room window and sat down. That girl with the painful voice in the hostel next door? How come she’s not shrieking about something?
To savor each bitter and steaming sip of coffee in such quiet?
That you should not be there when something we’ve both wanted happens is no new thing for me. Today too, as always, you’re not here.
When you came into our lives, I was in a strange frame of mind. I would have been willing to befriend anyone my age. I was ready for friendship with someone who only read management books; or someone who was studying information technology; or someone who wanted to settle in the United States. Anyone.
You came as a paying guest. You gave my parents the rent. You gave me so much more. Then you slipped away.
Those shrill girls in the hostel next door, weren’t they keeping an eye on us? I’m now going to sit on the wall, and when my coffee’s drunk, I’m going to scrape the dried coffee off the rim and the squelch at the bottom of the mug with a fingernail and then I’m going to lick it off. When that’s done, I’m going to take off my shirt and continue to sit here.
One of the fundamental rights of mankind should be that of wearing as many or as few clothes as one likes inside one’s own home. Or one should be able to wear none at all. Wasn’t the eye that the shrill girls in the hostel kept on us an invasion of our privacy, an abrogation of our rights?
After a bath in cold water, you would wrap a towel around yourself and sit on the low wall, bringing with you the smell of soap. It was you who broke my habit of going straight down for breakfast after bathing and getting fully dressed.
Another of my habits you broke: my daily accounts. I’d write them down faithfully. Rs 40 for coffee; Rs 100 for petrol.
‘Why keep accounts?’ you asked once.
‘It’s a good habit. You should know where you’re spending your money and on what.’
‘What do you get from knowing that?’
I asked Baba the same question in the night.
Baba’s answer was so stupid, I felt a spurt of sympathy for Aai. That night, I went for a walk and ate a paan; and I did not write down how much I spent on it.
We hit it off immediately; neither of us liked the kind of girl who would sing syrupy light classical music — bhav geet; nor the kind of boy who would wear banians with sleeves. There was another thing I didn’t like: marriage. And the many relatives who made it their business to discuss the subject ad nauseam. You had no relatives.
We would both have liked this moment. We knew that it would be ours one day. But it is now mine alone.
When I woke up, my eyes opened peacefully. I felt the kind of peace you feel when you come in from a hot afternoon and pour cold water over your feet. When I opened my eyes, the day stretched before me, free of anxiety. When I opened my eyes, nothing was left of the night’s anxieties. My eyelids floated up. To wake quietly from a deep sleep is a rare thing and, when it happens, you can almost imagine that the world had begun again, at least for a few seconds. Or so you said.
Watching me wake up one day, you asked, ‘Why those frown lines? This look of pain?’ Once when I watched you wake up, you had the same frown. You said, ‘When one gets up, there’s a moment when everything looks odd and strange.’
I let it go at that.
Today, when I woke up, my eyes drifted open. I felt the kind of peace you feel when you come in from a hot afternoon and pour cold water over your feet. But when I was making coffee a line inscribed itself on my forehead; and I began to think: Why this peace? Shouldn’t I be crying? Throwing a tantrum? Complaining to someone?
Your stuff was all over the room: cloth bags, easel, guitar, books, cassettes, camera, Walkman, rolled-up canvases, and a book of pasta recipes. Baba had finished his fifth cup of tea. Aai was making the sixth. Aseem was in bed.
Anuja stopped the rickshaw at the door and got out; and, as is her wont, shouted three times, loudly, for change. Was that the first time you saw each other? When you took the ten-rupee note to her? Anuja shook your hand firmly, no doubt hurting your fingers. Aai introduced you over lunch: ‘This is Anuja, Aseem and Tanay’s sister.’
In the next two years, how much did you find out about my sister, a girl whose idea of fun was a strenuous trek to a fort, who grinds your fingers in a painful grip when she shakes your hand, who snores a little in her sleep, who listens with complete attention as if you were the last person in the world?
But that’s my Anuja. Who is your Anuja? When did you get to know her? How? And how could I have been so blind right up to the end?
When you were giving Anuja the ten rupees, I was up in the tower room, picking up the shirt you had dropped, inhaling your scent from it. When you came up, I was looking through your albums. I hadn’t even thought of it as an invasion of privacy. You came up behind me and put a hand on my shoulder and said quietly, ‘That was taken a couple of days before the accident; the last photo.’ My Marathi-medium school had not taught us to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ at such moments. I hope I took hold of your hand then and gripped it tight.
Can a single day bear the burden of so many random firsts?
You spent all your Diwali vacations with uncles of various stripes. You ate your meals in hostel messes and, at each new halt, you found a roadside stall at which you could get your morning tea. You made yourself at home easily when you lived with us. It must not have been new, this living as a paying guest.
I had had my eye on that room, a dark one but well ventilated. Its main attraction was that it had its own access. I had assumed that it would be mine when I grew up. I would be able to come and go as I pleased. I would paint it the colors I wanted; decorate it the way I wanted. I would sleep in it, alone. But of course, that was the very room that my parents decided would attract a paying guest. And so I had showed this room to many potential residents, my face dark with resentment.
When I was a schoolboy, this was the room of my grandparents’ illness. There were two low cots ranged against opposite walls, my grandmother on one, on the other my grandfather. Then only grandmother remained, the room suffused with the smell of Amrutanjan. After she had suffered all her karmic share of suffering, phenyle drove out the other smells: of the aging body and drying behada bark, of supari and medicine. But the smell of Amrutanjan lingered.
When you came to see it, you said, ‘What a tempting aroma this room has. Do you come here to sneak cigarettes?’
That’s when I realized that smell is a matter of the mind. What smells you brought with you! Rum and cigarettes, your sweat and macaroni cooking on the hotplate, and then, because I loved it, attar of khus. And the smell of you, a unique personal smell of your own. When I think of you, that smell comes flooding back.
You came into the room and said, ‘What a tempting aroma this room has.’ I thought, if this chap takes the room, things might get interesting. I filled my chest with the smell of the room. Then you said, ‘Do you come here to sneak cigarettes?’ I realized that smell is a matter of the mind. Nothing is real.
As we chatted, sitting on the window ledge, in the middle of the night, I became aware of the mediocrity, the ordinariness of my secure and comfortable life.
You lost your parents when you were still in the tenth standard. You were offered the option of staying with relatives but chose to live in a hostel instead. You decided to live alone, to be independent, to make your own decisions. And through all this, the grim decision never to let a single tear fall.
When the results were declared, you did well. The crowd of happy parents made you uncomfortable and you slipped away. At the time, you were living with one of your aunts and you made your way home. The door was locked. Everyone had gone out. You sat on the sun-warmed steps, mark sheet in hand, and waited until evening . . . when you told me this, were those steps still warm for you?
Midnight in the window, just you and me. Even then you didn’t cry. At these times, I felt I should be your mother, your father, your brother, your friend, everything. But you had long reached the point at which you decided you would never cry again.
The mattress I had brought up, saying that I would study in the tower room, was never taken downstairs again. I encroached on your space slowly, hoping not to be rebuffed at each new foray.
One night, when everyone had fallen asleep after dinner, I came upstairs and found you in my beige kurta, sketching me. I got it: you didn’t mind my stealthy incursions. I also figured out that when the sketch was done, you were going to place it under my pillow. I slipped out again, closing the door behind me quietly and sat at the foot of the staircase, inhaling the scent of the raat rani.
The air was still. There was a light on in the kitchen, then the scrape of Baba’s cough and the light went out. The girls’ hostel across the road was still active. Some girls were oiling their hair and giggling. The rest were playing antakshari. Idly, I wondered what would happen to these foolish girls.
The light went out in the tower room. I went up and opened the door and approached the mattress. You were curled up on one side; the other a place for me, an invitation. Under the pillow, your sketch of me. But it wasn’t the one I had seen. This one had me, the staircase and the raat rani.
When I looked carefully at you, I could see you had screwed up your eyes like a child pretending to sleep.
When we lost a one-act play competition, I sat on the hot steps of the theatre and wept as a child would, sobbing and gasping. You sat down next to me and drew me close and once again I felt we were back in the window, back in the middle of a cool night.
Two days after you left with Anuja, Baba ransacked your room. One moment he was drinking tea; the next he was on his feet, calling Aseem as he marched upstairs. Aai and I followed him, at a run.
There wasn’t much in the room. From outside the window, we watched as Aseem and he turned what was left upside down. I had no energy left to speak, to intervene, to think. That pile of stuff reminded me of your first day here and my eyes filled. Aai thought I was crying because I was missing Anuja and she hugged me. Baba found nothing: no notes or slips of paper, no telephone diaries, no addresses, nothing that would fill out your context. No one saw how much of the stuff that they had tossed on to the floor was mine.
When they left, I saw four or five black-and-white photographs I had taken of you, peeping from a file. They’d faded a little over time and were stuck to each other. Delicately, I separated them.
When I took my Pentax out carefully from my bag, the rain had stopped. Soaked to the skin, you were looking at the sky, close to a black boulder washed clean by rainwater. You began to wipe your face with your sleeve and I stopped you, mid-wipe. You can see the glow of the rainwater and the gentle sun in the photograph.
You were about to finish a new painting. You had been at it day and night. In that riot of color, I now see a cage. It isn’t my face in the cage, but it resembles mine. That night when I came up to the terrace, you drew me greedily to you. And dark patches of color sprang up over my body: red and yellow and the purple-black of the jamun. Irritated, I upended your wooden palette over your head and then, in the middle of the night, by lamplight, I took a picture of your color-streaked face.
I stuck a few of those pictures up on the wall in my room below as well. But I didn’t want anyone to be suspicious so I added random pictures of some college friends around them, one of my parents, and one of Anuja as a bawling baby. That night, Aseem came to sleep in the room. He locked the door and lit a cigarette at the window. He turned to me and said, ‘Tomorrow I’ll get you a picture of Sai Baba. Stick that up as well. Spoil all the walls with Sellotape marks.’ When all this got to me, I would wonder whether I should ask you to leave with me, to go and stay somewhere else, somewhere far away.
But then I’d suddenly feel that I should ask you what you want to do with your life. Do you want a relationship? Would you dare?
I took two textbooks and started to come upstairs. I tried to be as quiet as possible but, when I went into the next room, I could hear Aai and Baba talking about something. They were speaking softly as they did when something was worrying them. Hearing my footsteps, they stopped. Aai wiped her eyes; Baba adjusted his expression and said, ‘What happened? Not sleepy? Want me to rub oil on your head?’ I didn’t think I could come upstairs right away. I’ll tell you about it later, I thought. When I took my Pentax out, the rain had stopped. You were wet through. Soaked to the skin, you were looking at the sky, close to a black boulder washed clean by rainwater.
I watched you through the lens. The cold made my hands tremble and the frame trembled too. At that moment, I felt I had to tell you what I felt, devil take the consequences. Then you wiped your face with your sleeve and I stopped you, mid-wipe.
When you arrived, I was ready to be friends with the kind of person who read management books, studied computer software and wanted a green card. I was bored of the same old stories and the same old people. I would have been willing to befriend anyone my age. Anyone. Those first few days, at the start of term, were quiet, peaceful, as you were. That might have been because the idea of a lifelong partnership, a long-term commitment hadn’t crossed my mind.
Shrikrishna Pendse was a boy like any other in our class; but when school reopened after the Diwali vacations one year, there was something different about him. He left the top button of his shirt open. His eyes were intense; and when he threw his arm around my shoulders, the smell of his body was seductive. Before school, after school, when the classroom emptied because everyone else was going to the laboratory, we grabbed at every opportunity to grab at each other. In that time between the ninth and the tenth standard, we began to rediscover ourselves. I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t stay at home. The months passed in a haze of Euclidean geometry, Shrikrishna’s chatter, full marks in mathematics and the slow growth of down on Shrikrishna’s chest.
By contrast, our lovemaking was beautiful. At around three thirty in the morning, you slowly took me into your arms and I realized that this was the first time I had allowed this physical bliss to burgeon slowly. With Shrikrishna, there had always been an element of roughness. Was someone watching us? Would someone wake up? And then the habit of silence. And between you and Shrikrishna, how many different bodies! Twenty-five? Thirty? But they were all pretty much the same, and often it didn’t matter if I didn’t see their faces.
Once when I visited his house, Shrikrishna was in the bathroom. His mother told me to wait in his room. With nothing to do, I opened a magazine lying on the table. Madhuri Dixit was featured in a swimming costume. Some nights later, as he was about to come, Shrikrishna closed his eyes and mumbled, ‘Sheetal.’ Sheetal was a girl in the second year. At that time I only felt slightly surprised.
Once after a bath, I opened the door of my cupboard to get a change of clothes. Just the day before, Ashwin Lele had got hold of a video cassette. It was not the kind you got easily. You had to know someone at the video library. Then, you had to have the house to yourself. Lele knew someone and his parents had gone off to their village. He had a cassette player. After class, everyone gathered at his house. I laughed uncomfortably as we watched. All the boys were trying to sound sophisticated. I took my clothes out of the cupboard and looked at myself in the mirror. I dropped the wet towel. I took a long, clear-eyed look at myself. That I was different was nowhere apparent.
In school, the question was unimportant. In college all my close friends were women. The other boys and girls did seem to get together, they did go out together, they rehearsed plays together and even went out of town on trips together. But it was only when it came to arranging the annual college day — who to invite, what to get — that I first went to Rashmi’s home. No event in senior college seemed complete without Rashmi. Through the year, she didn’t actually join any of the extracurricular activities of the college: not the literary circle and not the singing group; she was not part of the trophy- hungry theatre group and was not in the National Cadet Corps. But if any of these clubs had an activity or an event, Rashmi was sure to be part of it. She seemed to be able to talk to teachers and caterers, to lighting men and sound technicians, to the student union and even the principal. This was the same man who didn’t even look up when he spoke to students but he would stop to chat with her before getting into his car and driving away. Often I didn’t understand the behavior of the girls around. (Still don’t.) I saw Anuja as one of the few sensible girls I knew. All the others seemed conventional; they were the kind who would have to be ‘proposed to’, they would have to get home by seven in the evening, they would weep as they sang the kind of syrupy bhav geet that would bring tears to the eyes of the senior citizenry whose own children were settled in America.
When I first went to her house, it was about 11.30 in the morning. I knocked and waited for some minutes. Then I began to call her name. A little girl came out of a neighboring flat. ‘Hey,’ she called and beckoned. I turned to her but she ran back into her flat and closed the iron security door. Sticking her nose out through the bars, she said: ‘What’s the use? Rashmitai must be still asleep. When I ring her number, the phone wakes her up.’ She giggled at this and ran inside. The phone began to ring in Rashmi’s flat. In a while, Rashmi came to the door, sleep clouding her eyes. She took the papers from my hand. To the little girl who had reappeared at the grill, she said, ‘Cheene, your Aai is going to be late. Don’t open the door to anyone. And come by in the afternoon for bread and jam.’ Then she took the papers, thanked me and both Cheenoo and she slammed their doors.
Now I have a key to Rashmi’s flat.
You didn’t seem very curious about people. I’m different. After I got to know you, I wanted to know every little detail about you. Where did you go to school? Did you ever fall in love? With whom? How do you manage alone? What do you plan on doing? I would ask a flurry of questions and I would volunteer a flurry of details about myself.
I don’t know how you managed it: an intense relationship with me, an attraction to Anuja, and then to leave with her? To live somewhere else?
Yesterday, Ashish and Samuel invited me over for a meal. Both their names were on the door. Ashish was cooking while Samuel helped, unobtrusively. They refused to let me do anything. I sat on a stool in the kitchen and watched them at work. I think they deliberately chose not to mention you. After lunch, while we were having coffee, Ashish went and sat next to Samuel and placed his warm cup against Samuel’s cheek. I looked down immediately. Samuel saw my discomfiture and said, ‘I’ll get some cookies,’ and went into the kitchen.
In the last couple of years, I have begun to feel the need for a permanent relationship, something I can grow into. The thought had crept up on me that I might have such a relationship with you. When I looked at my parents and thought about this whole ‘together forever’ thing, it never struck me as anything exciting. Yesterday, I was a little envious of what Samuel and Ashish had. When she spoke of Aseem’s wedding, Aai always said, ‘It’s best if these things happen in good time.’ In her world, unmarried men were irresponsible, free birds and unmarried women like Rashmi had ‘not managed to marry.’
What do two men who decide to live together do? Men like you and me? Those who don’t want children? Those who don’t have the old to look after or the young to raise? No one would visit us because we’d be living together as social outcasts. For most of the day, we would do what we liked.
You sometimes asked me, ‘Why do you stare at me like that?’ Did you know what I was thinking? We hadn’t met Samuel and Ashish then so I didn’t know any male couples who lived together.
You spoke of a couple who had never lived together. She was a French writer whose work you loved. He was also a writer and a philosopher. They had never lived under the same roof. But they were friends and had remained so. Throughout their lives, they had pooled in their income. They did an impressive amount of writing, teaching and fighting for the causes they valued. They had given themselves the right to create a new kind of relationship. You spoke animatedly about them; the second time you described their relationship, I said, ‘You’ve told me about this already.’
‘I’ll get some cookies,’ Samuel said and went into the kitchen. Ashish and I sat there without speaking.
Samuel did not come back. Perhaps he’d gone for a nap. After a while, Ashish came and sat down next to me. He said, ‘It hurts, doesn’t it? I get it.’ But it was he who began to cry. I hugged him and patted his back as he cried and cried. Finally, exhaustion set in and he stopped and wiped his reddened eyes.
He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Sometimes, I don’t understand Samuel at all. There are these phone calls that go on for hours on end. And if I’m with him, he goes into the next room. I just look at him. What can I say?’
For hours on end, I sat in that upstairs room, staring at you while you went about your life, unaware of my attention. You would be squeezing paint out of tubes, hanging your clothes out to dry, wiping your stained hands on your T-shirt, blowing on the milk as it bubbled over, lifting vessels off the hotplate, or sucking on a singed finger. I’d be staring at you and thinking, I should ask, I should ask, I should ask: do you want to be in a stable monogamous relationship for the rest of your life?
Even if we’re not going to have children, even if we don’t have to worry about guests, even if we’re going to end up sleeping on two single beds, separated by a table on which there’s a copper vessel containing water, I want us to be together.
Why? I was a child then. I woke up in the middle of the night and went in search of a glass of water. Aai had a fever and Baba was sitting by her side, stroking her head. He gave her her pills and then he helped her up and took her to the bathroom . . . I still remember that scene.
No one had made me want to ask that question. Not Shrikrishna Pendse with whom I stole some moments in empty classrooms; not Amit Chowdhuri who lived alone behind Sharayu Maushi’s home; not Girish Sir who kept me back after rehearsals when all the other kids had been sent away.
After we made love, I felt a delicious lassitude creeping over me. When consciousness returned, I realized that you were still with me; you hadn’t turned your back and edged away.
Later, I was awakened by the warmth of the sun, filtering in through the window, and a delectable aroma in the air. It was you, after a bath, your hair wet, sitting in a chair, looking at me.
‘Why the lines on your forehead? Why that look of pain?’ I cleared my face, consciously letting happiness through.