Fall 1997, Volume 14.3
Rajat Mahapatra (Ph.D., Utkal U) is a senior lecturer in the Post Graduate Department of English at Ravenshaw College, Orissa, India. His fiction in Oriya language has appeared in a number of Indian journals including Jhankar, Katha, Istahaar and Galpa.
When Surabhi starts talking I don't have to wait for the words to understand their meaning. I don't need the help of a dictionary either to explain to myself the origin and meaning of her words. Words released from her mouth carry unknown emotions. The story she wants to tell me is soaked in curiosity, intrigue, sensation, vibrations, and heart throbbing, pulsating lies. I try to explain to her and repeatedly warn her that words are absolutely impartial and do not take sides with truth or lies per se. You cannot divide them into two warring poles of absolute truth or lies just as you cannot divide people into absolute categories of friends and enemies, speakers and listeners, or warring opponents. Just as you assess the element of truth from the way the words are used in actual application so also you will know the origin and progress of our relationship from our wordy conversation.
Yes, I am speaking of Surabhi as though I own her as my heart, but at times I get the irregular feeling that she is not mine.
When she wakes, the last night's escapade turns into history. She starts babbling, which in turn silences me. This is my strategy to keep her speech obsession at bay and the only way to keep us together. I fall into the silent zone that forms a convenient backdrop to Surabhi's chatter. She bases all her stories on gossips of which I become the sole listener. Our communication progresses as she forces a battle on me that neither ends in defeat nor in victory. My passionate desires find fulfillment inside her magical adverbial activities. Her adept language skill becomes a springboard for my unsuspecting stories and forms a preface to her feminine instinct for intensity. She presents a partisan symbol for another story which I am pleased to imagine.
There is nothing that cannot be said, she says. Therefore I am not what she thinks me to be. I want to describe her realities through these written words that I could not speak with my tongue in cheek. I want all these to be true.
She proposes: "Let's sit down for a while and talk. 'Gossip is the mortar for the bricks of conversation,'" she quotes a psychologist from a newspaper extract. I cannot agree with her. I am not an anxious talker to add word for word and carry on a gossip. So I quietly nod and listen. A question arises in my mind. Am I unable to match her? She would say no to this. Our horoscopes superbly match: a royal a coincidence of Rajajotak according to traditional Indian astrology. She
proudly brags about it and infers that we were man and wife in several previous births.
At times I think we are poles apart. I am so different from her. I am scared of her fearlessness. She is irritated and anxious. I am cool and balanced. She is beautiful and I am not. She is homebound, I am fond of the outside world. She loves spicy food and I just believe in eating for living. She is a little beauty of a woman and I am a man. I am her opposite.
She is an able talker. I refuse to let her desires lean on me. I turn my face away from her instinctive inclinations to take me for a ride and she turns furious. I cannot solve her problems because I can only return her reflections and send back echoes. This is my way of reciprocating her love.
She barges into my drowsy dreams to disturb me with her endless conversations. She starts by dividing days of the week according to the colors of the rainbow. Primary colors that combine to make other shades. The first day violet; her favorite sari's color, the one she wore on the wedding day. The second, indigo, a color that inducts her into my ways. Third, blue, comprises the beauty of attractive impulses that bring us closer. Fourth, green, brings the dream she weaves around me with. Fifth, yellow, symbolizes the color of her femininity. Sixth, orange, is a color of rapid fall into familiarity. Seventh, red, forms the day of desires and their demolition into the night.
At the end of the week she says she knew me like the back of her hand. She could smell me in a dark room and say who I was. What more does a man expect? She claimed to have seen me from end to end. I was scared to face her because of the ease with which she held me by the hand and walked me on the street.
We were walking hand in hand on the familiar road. There was another couple walking ahead of us so deeply engrossed in talk that they never bothered to know if we were any closer to them. I could listen to their conversation. I heard them in spite of myself. I heard them talking and listening in turns. Measured and calculated old fashioned conversation about other people and other conversations. The topic of their talk started with the neighbor's wife and her new night clothes and moved to national economy through politics. I kept hearing them without much attention or interest as if they were my own Surabhi's talking mouth to respond to. I was absentminded. I prefer mute absentmindedness because I believe speaking shuts up the ears and I don't want that.
I seek more silence and prefer to stay an unseen listener. The spillover stories hold enormous appeal for me. I am thrilled to trans late these stories into narratives of ironic self-delusion that appear endless. I hear strange dialogues in them through my unseen presence.
"Do you know why Mohini agreed to marry Srikumar?"
"Her father gave her a blank check and told her she could write any amount she wanted, but with one condition: she had to forget Suman. After that Mohini agreed to do exactly what she had hated to do. If she had loved Suman in the Hindi movie fashion she could also forget him as a counterfeit story. She could even insult him and cash in on her womanliness. She thought of herself as Pretty Woman.
Listening to this unexpected conversation I had lost my road sense. A lorry had appeared from a turning and was about to hit me when the man walking ahead of me shook himself away from his woman's arms and yanked me away. He had saved me from imminent accident. The lorry driver laughed away like mad and said, "Hey, just married, you? Watch out."
On reaching home I watched the time on my wall clock. I did not want to believe the hours that moved rather whimsically. My living room was filled with words. What for this hullabaloo? Why are words crowding like this? I have not invited them here, have I? They scream into my ear drums. Jumping from wall to wall these words are like acrobats. Female words swing on invisible strings hanging from the ceiling. Morose and inconsolable words wallow on the dusty carpet. One hideous word takes other innocent words for a ride. There goes a parasite. A drunken fiendish word was readily attacking a coy sweet word with the intention of raping her. Two injured words were crying away. None of them was willing to see me as I stood there with friendly intentions. Finally my eyes fell on a word that blushed at my piercing wink and quickly flew to hide itself inside Surabhi's heart that started throbbing heavily.
Surabhi who maintained a forced silence till then could not retain it any longer and blurted out an elongated O. Afterwards from her lips flowed beautiful words forming a narrative of ecstasy. This is about the only time I love to hear her. Her heart is heavy with words. Her emotion charmed with human desires. Her breast livid with passionate hisses.
I don't want to ask why, when, or where her action occurs. I keep listening to her impatiently. I wait for the color of truth in her narrative and suspend my disbelief to be an ideal listener. I love her immediate presence right before me and her story gradually becomes so comforting that it sends me to sleep.
Forcing my half-closed eyelids open, Surabhi looks straight into my eyes and says, "The boy whom I was supposed to marry before you proposed to me was a eunuch. And a drunkard. Now he beats his wife daily and accuses her of infidelity, the only charge he can bring against her because of the albinotic son she has given birth to. How can a swarthy man together with a tawny woman to produce a chalky boy? It must be from some white bastard, he argues.
I suddenly come to realize that I was not listening to her at all. But how can I report this to you word for word if I was not listening? How can I relay her running commentary if I was not hearing her? Yes, this comprises a report of what she said to me. It is her version only through my lips. I am saying whatever she said. I only return an image of her account as a mirror. There is nothing in this that I can claim as my own, as a mirror cannot claim the images it reflects; they only belong to the person who uses the surface of the mirror in self-reflective moments. Similarly, whoever is listening to this is only listening to his own story. This is a story I once listened to. These are not my words, nor my composition. The question of my believing in them doesn't arise. Dear reader, you just have to believe in them because they contain the truth.
At these moments my relationship with Surabhi is first word made flesh transforming into images. I am obliged to hear whatever she says even as I don't care to understand it.
Therefore without pausing to understand what she has to say I lend her my ears. Perhaps she is equally obliged to narrate. I don't want to expose any of my weaknesses as a listener by letting her know that I was absentminded. She holds me by my ears and looks right through the holes of my eyes to ensure that I am a captive listener. I keep listening without interruptions.
Now I come to hear the hitherto unheard incarnation of the repetitive narration of a wornout tale. It appears like a future story that we together make up by a strange combination of hopes and dreams. I look at the time piece. It was about time we went to bed. I switch on a dim bed lamp with a flickering shade that melts away in her hot breath. Scratching the root of my right ear she says, "Did you know, this morning a Baba, a real God-man, came to our house and predicted a wonderful future for us. An imported Honda car will stand in our portico. You will soon get a promotion. We shall have a son. And we shall have real affluence." She was thrilled to say this to me and carelessly jerked her left knee that hit my lower abdomen. I screamed out in pain but she could not hear it.
She continued to speak like a dedicated wife: "Baba picked from the air a red flower with the fragrance of jasmine and placed it in my closed fist without so much as allowing me to actually see it until he had disappeared. He advised me to preserve the flower till he came again. According to the Baba I could get anything I wished for as long as I had you inside my mind. I could not hide anything from you. He asked me to pay him a hundred and eight rupees which I have taken from your purse without your knowledge. You will have to excuse me once you look at the silver coin the Baba gave me. He told me that he would come again and see me next year when all these changes would have taken place. We shall have moved into a new bungalow by then."
I was more shocked than surprised. If we have to move to a new address then how is this Baba going to know about it? We are ourselves ignorant of the same. Surabhi was very reassuring. She told me that such Babas could know in advance what remains unknown to lesser mortals.
Surabhi's chatter goes on like bird song. You don't hear its music until you listen. She continues like the rustling leaves that whisper to the dusk. She murmurs like a flowing fountain. When she finds a listener in me she smiles and smiles and a string of saliva flows from the corner of her mouth and falls on her blouse which deepens with the color of my projected desire. She madly laughs at my fears and tumbles over me from my right to my left to peck at the black mole on my left cheek which arouses in her flames of passion.
"Are you listening to what I am saying?" She cross examines my attention. "What was it I just said, you remember? You are so incorrigible. How can you talk warmly to everyone except me. With me you zip your lips. See the Mishras in the next bloc! An elderly person as she is, Mrs. Mishra looks so attractive for her age. She wears such beautiful saris admirably covering her shoulders. I have watched her sipping tea in their lawn in the afternoon with Mr. Mishra. She talks so naturally while Mr. Mishra listens totally transformed to ears. I have seen him holding her hand like a teenager. Seen him plucking gray hair from her head as the squirrel jumps over the fence to run into our garden. And look at you. You can neither tell me anything nor listen to me. If you still don't hear me I shall go back to my mother and never come back."
This was not a proposition. Nor was it a threat but only a mild complaint that I was not listening to her. I suddenly felt forewarned and spoke as if in a joke, "You just came from mom's, only a week ago. Why don't you let the old lady have some peace of mind?"
"No, my mom is neither old, nor does she lose her peace when I am with her. I must go." Putting my palm on her lips I silenced her and said, "I shall do whatever you want."
"Then listen to me, talk to me. You must tell me everything that happens at the office. What was the color of the steno's dress today? Why was the boss sulking? Who bit the accountant's lips? Is she married or only looks so? A modern model of a woman. Tell me all the gossip about them. Gossip about gossips. All that Mr. Mishra shares with his wife. This evening I saw them talking very intimately.
"Even the newly married, nomad-looking, couple that have rented the outhouse live an enviable life. They walk the road hand in hand as though they are from the moon. They share everything with each other that life has to offer."
Since I had not seen them yet, and had only heard about them I imagined a strange picture of this enviable twosome. Perhaps they have run away from some far off place after committing some criminal offense and the police are after them. Who can say the true relationship between two unknown strangers? In my view two criminals share greater intimacy than two normal humans. I decide to warn Surabhi that too much intimacy may be bad for health.
I wanted to tell Surabhi that they were thieves, perhaps antisocial terrorists in the garb of gentlemen. More likely so because you don't suspect them to be so. "A thief has no such dramatic appearance. A feeble minded female thinks of the thief as a dark and ugly man with coarse mustache, a teeth-grinder with unkempt hair and eyes filled with cruelty. An unpleasant face with twisted ears, caterpillar brows, and an irregular nose. Perhaps another man with the scar who laughs with gross abandon and walks with cruel steps to insult the earth below his feet. He is always on the look out for opportunities. Even when he is not doing anything he is trying to lift you to some place where he can tug your hair and who knows." I could not articulate any of these words that were only silently formed in my mind. This could not have been a dialogue dedicated for her. I did not want to scare her.
In the dimly lit bedroom's blue silence her whispers hissed at me. She turned garrulous like an actress in a Shakespearean comedy. A dreaming modern edition of a romantic woman one may not trust. Now she has lost all balance at her speech center. Her simplified desire grows into an enormous wish. Let everyday be a delightful day. Every night a blissful night. Let time move forward between waking and dreaming, between hearing and listening.
I compare Surabhi with the eternal wife insofar as her nocturnal magic is concerned. Each night she magically transforms herself into an imp that escapes from the bottle and expands with the dim light of the bed room. She fills the air with affirmative words and her wishes masquerade as whispers. She sings into my ears such mantras that I grow lighter and lighter. I desperately need her help to find some anchorage. I see her eyes glow like those of a witch. I tremble in fear. When I open my mouth to ask her a question she licks my lips and I become mute. Her hair covers my face like dark clouds. Her passion sparkles like the lightening, her whole being comes down on me like an unexpected shower. When she grows tired with satisfaction she asks me three baseless questions. She repeats the three questions every night expecting different affirmative answers. "Are you happy with me? What do you expect of me? What do you think of me?" For me they are very difficult to answer. I sometimes wonder if they are questions at all. Questions which have no answer are not always negative. I prefer silence and she grows impatient. After some time she starts a new word-made story that tires me to the bones. This she claims to be the best she could ever tell. I metamorphose into magic ears: enormous funnels for receiving words.
Her style is superb. Her narrative leads her plot to a climax that runs parallel to her orgasm. Her sonorous tale is commensurate with a suspense that holds me guessing. You too will be surprised, dear reader. This was her best performance. In her throat flow guttural hi-fi words, her lips quiver with tremulous sonority, her jingle jangle bangles blend with the music of color. Unexpected anxiety fills her voice. Words originating from her have a different wisdom and a different application. I guess I understand her intent before I hear her words. I watch her with respect as she puts truth in the matrix of lies and paints them all with the colors of confidence. Truth for her is the second maid to queen of lies. I wonder how Surabhi could be such an expert word-user. The right words in the right places. Coming from her they hit against my body as I stumble momentarily to search for simpler synonyms. But there is no time to pause from listening.
I listen to her words and their meanings as indices of richer expressions. Her narrative far surpasses the lucidity of language. She has banished all weaknesses inherent in tête-á-tête. She speaks with a clarity that defies the dependence on diction.
While listening to her I am always conscious that it is possible to speak lies through the mouth and fill sentences with fallacies, but the manner of expression always remains a determined thing. Therefore it is not difficult for me to dissect her speech and anatomize the allied nuances of emotional vibrations that might transform into something else. It is easy to separate her stories from her biases, preferences, prejudices, satire, anger, indifference, female charm, and other anxious magical emotions that tend to corrupt the purity of her speech.
I quickly separate the crudities of unnecessary implications and look for immaculate communication. I limit her to words per se. I separate the lies and reject them like the periphery of her dreams which she weaves around the truthful structure of her body. I hold on to her truth like I hold her fragrant hair in my hand and gently tug at it to provoke her to the reality of her body. I love to listen to her body-language. She cannot mislead me on this. I realize all her messages on her face, on her body, and on her gestures. Truth blossoms on her fragrant nipples. Her eyes glow with the glory of corporeal dreams that translate all my desires to now. All her histrionics enact the drama of cold prosaic perfection of truth. I filter the impurities of her metaphors and let her wallow in the spontaneous aroma of a self-expressing prose.
I don't know if this is going to touch you. For I know all attempts to defraud the readers will come to nothing. You want me to speak straight and I do. I use straight and logical sentences without the decorations of similes or synecdoches that canker the rose of poetry in the name of modernity. There is no pretense to indirect speech here. I depend on the purest application of prose to tell you the truth and nothing but the truth. I am neither paranoid nor poetic.
So I find Surabhi so different now on my bed. She prides herself on being ornamental in her language. She is too enthusiastic about it. She can unfreeze the ice of death by the warmth of her living words. She can madden the listener with passionate desires that prefer death to fulfillment. She drives me mad as I try to prove to her that she is only another woman, another body, another word. She successfully turns my love to lust and lust to fidelity through words. She wins me by her body-words and winks at my weakness to call it success. I call it another example of female harmony achieved through a triumph of language which her tongue hoists over our business. Between talking and listening she tests my skill as a potential participant in the games that all the people play when they are not conscious of roles. She starts another story. I am uncertain if she was narrating a lighter tale in a heavy tone or a heavier tale in a light tone. She always starts in media res.
"Did you know that last night a robber entered into our neighbor's house? (The robber of her stories always enters into the neighbor's house, never into her own.) He was holding a big gun in his hand. Pointing the gun at Mrs. Mishra's head the robber asked for the key to the chest and the locker. He had poisoned their dog beforehand. Mr. Mishra, who had inhaled chloroform, was lying unconscious in the study. The robber opened the refrigerator to drink cold milk and helped himself to some leftover food. Snapped the telephone wire and burped in satisfaction. He then looked at Mrs. Mishra and suddenly felt passion arising in him, a passion that was different from the covetous instinct that he always thought was his forte as a robber fleeing from the police. It was a snaky rising of desire in his erogenous zone. He did not understand its reason or its result. He ordered in a strong voice as he slumped into a sofa, 'Now you do exactly as I want you to do. I sit here while you walk up and down the carpet like in a beauty pageant. Come a bit closer to me and then suddenly swing your hips to turn away and let me see your behind. Then I will go away without touching you.'
"Mrs. Mishra, a deeply-devoted woman of forty, had no reason to obey the intruder. She won't do what a stranger asks her to do. A dirty character cannot be relied upon. Biting her tongue more because of habit than precaution or fear, she thought for a while and could not decide what to do. She started crying out noisily. This was what she thought could be used as a weapon against men when everything else fails. Looking at real tears the robber was himself uncertain about his own reaction. He shot twice into the air and then opened the steel chest. He carelessly threw the stacked things from inside it. He found nothing of real value.
"Among other things he saw there were new and old saris, some known and unknown medicine, a pack of old letters, a new album with old photos, some naphtha balls, and a bound photo of Lord Jagannath which he himself saluted before turning again to Mrs. Mishra.
"'Cash, where is the cash? Tell me.' He ordered.
"'It's with Babu, who operates through the bank.' (She refers to her husband as Babu in the third person when talking to others).
"'That's in the locker of the Indian Bank, I don't need to wear any now,' she said humorously.
"At this the robber was furious and ran to her threateningly to attack her physically. He looked at her earrings and the gold chain with the locket that decorated her bosom which she was trying to hide from the stranger. Then the robber cruelly stretched his arms and reached her neck to feel the gold chain which he wanted to snatch even as she was willing to give it to him without any violence touching her body. Then he laid his hands on her gold bangles and the gold ring with an M embossed on it in red. Unable to do anything further to save herself, Mrs. Mishra started sobbing again and addressed him as a younger brother. 'Please let me go, God will be kind to you. Go to the Patnaiks, across the street.' Pointing to our house, as she added, 'They are richer people, you shall find greater treasure in their locker than here. Please leave me. Her husband is a wealthier person and is more corrupt as an officer who is fond of black money and dark women. Please go there.'
"Leaving her there as though believing in whatever she said, the man now looked in the direction of our house. How can she be any different when everybody else is so jealous of us? Why do you think Mrs. Mishra was any different from others? Before leaving their place the robber suspiciously asked, 'But how did you know?'
"'Do you know, how many saris Mrs. Patnaik has?'
"Three wardrobes full. When we went to visit them for the first time last year we saw them as rich as the richest man around.'
"'What else did you see?' The robber asked with mouth salivating.
"'We saw shining walls, crystal chandeliers, royal curtains, Afghan carpets, and antique furniture, and the wife wearing American saris which covered her body like gold, meaning thereby that your wife, Surabhi was an enviable woman even for the robber.'"
This made me suddenly conscious of my place and time which was so different from those of the stories that are so artfully narrated by Surabhi.
"Then the real drama began," Surabhi continued to narrate raising the anxiety of her tone to a higher pitch.
"The night had entered into deep hours of darkness. Our calling bell went: ding dong. You were not yet back from the club. In great fear I tugged the rug over my face in bed and waited for the bell to ring again. When it didn't, I remembered Ma. I could hear then that there was actually no bell, only the familiar three taps which announce your return from office. Knock, knock, knock: three times, as you do, and then the familiar call from your voice.
"I got up to open the door but, before opening it, I looked through the peephole and saw on the other side a rough-looking face that resembled a villain's—his cheeks thick as fish-gills, his eyes gray and wide, one of his ears bigger than the other. His hair malnourished and thick like nails.
"I stood like a statue for how long I don't know and came back to my senses when I heard your voice again from the other side. I opened the door and was extremely happy to see you. I wondered where the robber had gone, and how he could leave without taking anything from us. Well, it was for the better. These neighbors will never let us live in peace."
"But what happened next?" I suddenly asked, now a perfect listener to her story.
"What else? Nothing, but I am warning you. Don't leave me like this again and spend long hours drinking at the club bar. I feel so scared and so lonely…. Read what today's newspaper has to report about this robber."
She handed me the evening newspaper and I read.
It was reported and thieves, robbers and burglars were active in the city. There was particular reference to a house breaker who was different from the others. After midnight he camouflaged himself in the appearance of the absent husband and impersonated the husband's voice to enter into the house for robbing the housewives. People were warned not to let anyone enter their houses before ensuring their identities. It also presented an artist-drawn portrait of the robber. If a person resembling that profile was found, citizens were advised to call 199 or their nearest police station. Their identities would be secret.
After reading it, I crumpled the newspaper into a ball and threw it at Surabhi. She looked at me in disbelief. Perhaps she had discovered a strange similarity between the robber's face and mine. She collapsed like a jilted woman. I lifted her into my arms and laid her carefully on the bed. I whispered into her ears words she had least expected to hear from me. It is impossible to tell you what I told her.