Winter 1998, Volume 15.1
Darius Cooper (Ph.D., U of Southern Cal.) is Professor of Literature & Film at San Diego Mesa College. His book on Satyajit Ray will be published by Cambridge Univ. Press in 1998.
Anuja looked at Siva's face in the car's rear-view mirror. It glowed with success. Her fingers lovingly fondled the expensive gift she had bought for him. It lay beside her, neatly folded in brown paper. She knew he hated the glossy gift-wrap paper. His wife and kids had left suddenly for Calcutta. He was taking her to his flat for the weekend. No wife. No kids. Just the two of them. How well he drove the car. She watched his fingers on the steering wheel. He always seemed to have everything under control.
Just six months back they had met at a party. And what a new world he had opened out for her. All those dull and drab historians whom she had heard in her boring afternoon lectures, became live dramatic characters when he expounded on them every evening, in her room. He was twice her twenty years but treated her without patronage. Shutting away the hooded demons that slept so close to the surface of society's rigid sensibilities had become second nature to her. As she looked at the contours of his face she decided that she couldn't care less. Which girl of 20 wouldn't be flattered by the persistent attentions of Siva Saxena? She leaned forward and fondled his hair. He had asked her to sit behind him just as a precaution. She smiled and fondled his hair again. There was a faint smell of fish in the breeze that blew in from the sea.
Suddenly he slammed on the brakes. Anuja was thrown rudely against her gift. In an effort to hold on to something, four of her fingers tore right through the gift packing and clumsily grasped a solid bronze arch. A legless beggar on a large skating-board had suddenly darted across the road. As she regained her seat, she caught a quick glimpse of contempt curl itself, like a whip, around Siva's mouth. "Damned beggars," he muttered fiercely. "They thrive on charity and now want to become martyrs under my car. Are you all right, my love?"
She smiled and fell back against the seat. What a pity that his gift had become a little ruined. They drove in silence. And then for no reason at all, the word 'martyr' suddenly started to click like a windshield wiper, right across her thoughts. She looked at Siva's face again. It was calm and emotionless. What was he planning now? The usual seduction after he lectured her first on that particular symphony which he would put on the turntable? And why it was written and how the first movement flowed into the second? This time it was to be at his house. She shuddered at the idea of making love in the same bed where his wife and he slept! She had always wanted to know about his wife, Parul. But he seemed to dismiss her every time with the same remark, "I like her and respect her, Anuja. But I love you and want you. So don't break your pretty little head over it." But who was being martyred in this particular situation anyway? The older Parul with their two girls? A large flat overlooking the sea? Early morning swims and badminton games at Willingdon club? And when the days got hot and sultry in Bombay, the instinctive family weekend at Khandala? In a quiet bungalow with the dogs, the cat and the old Gurkha servant who had been with them for the eight 'happy' years that they had been married?
"Now, my love, listen to me." With a start, Anuja emerged from her thoughts. "I'll drop you at the corner and go ahead and park the car. I'm on the 11th floor. We'll go up together in the elevator. You ask the liftman to take you to the 15th. I'll get off at the 11th. Wait for the elevator to go down. Then come down the stairs quickly. Don't ring the bell. I'll keep the door open. Take the gift with you. It'll make you look more…authentic. That liftman is quite a gossipy character. Like my driver. Damned peasants. They love biting the hand that feeds them. And they say the rich exploit the poor!"
Her fingers held on to the bronzed arch inside the torn packet. All these manipulations, all these instructions, how she hated them! Why couldn't he ever be proud of this relationship? Imagine, cringing away from one's own driver and liftman! No. It wasn't the wife who was being martyred. Couldn't he realize that she, Anuja, was also a daughter causing her old parents a lot of pain every time she locked her bedroom door with a man old enough to be, to be what? A quick compulsive lover between his two conferences and her afternoon postgraduate history class? Or the over-the-weekend-starved Monday-evening lover ravishing her, while downstairs his two little girls played in the car with a chuckling driver, waiting for "daddy" to come down and take them for a walk to the racecourse and watch the horses being put through their paces? She smiled bitterly at the last thought. And yet she loved him. Just as his wife Parul did, and needed him just as his kids did. She looked at his face again as he stopped the car. He was exactly like the bronze statue of the God Siva wrapped up in that package.
Half an hour later, she felt calm once again. They had unwrapped her gift and she watched him place it proudly on the writing desk in his study. "How will you explain the gift to Parul?" Anuja suddenly asked him, but he did not even hear her. He was examining the bronze statue with such close scrutiny and excitement that she felt remote and forcibly excluded. She looked with envy and hatred at this bronze statue of the God Siva doing the Tandava dance…
"…it means, Anuja, the dance of destruction. After Siva has destroyed the world, and," he chuckled,"us, for all our sins, he will dance this Tandava. You see this little drum he is holding in one of his hands? It is called a dumroo. By shaking it he will create a new world. And this metal bronze arch behind his head with little lamps of fire flickering in them? That stands for the world which he has destroyed. It's in flames. And that is the small ugly dwarf of ignorance that he is crushing with his other foot. Have you read..?"
"What will you tell Parul when she asks you who gave you this gift?" Anuja repeated the question, a little fiercely and insistently this time.
"Oh, I'll tell her I bought it at one of those quaint junk-shops at Chor Bazaar. Come on. Don't look so cheerless. Why don't you go and relax in the hall, while I make you that Spanish omelette which I promised. Okay. Now up you go." Anuja looked at the statue again. How could such a cultured intelligent man invent a lie and place it on his desk, look at it everyday, lecture about it, probably to his guests, without trying to give it any kind of validity. She wished she had not bought it. In the shop it had looked so majestic. Even its weight had somehow seemed to impress her. But now it weighed on her in a different way. She felt humiliated, almost like that dwarf, trodden by her Siva, who was busy in the kitchen creating a Spanish omelette, of all things for her.
She dreaded going into the bedroom. There were so many clues of 'home' and 'marriage' here in the hall. She had longed for those two words too. Which woman didn't? But this was another 'home' and another 'marriage'? And like it or not, she was the other woman! So what if the wife didn't know. On several occasions she had longed to pick up the phone and proudly proclaim over the mouthpiece to Parul Saxena that she, Anuja Desai, was her husband's mistress! But she had never done it. Now she was in her house, in her hall. And there was the telephone!
A desire to give concrete shape to this other woman, this wife whom he rarely talked about, suddenly took hold of her. Parul had to be unique in her own way, otherwise he would have left her. But he hadn't. He had always insisted that he like her, respected her, and would never leave her. When she had demanded the reason, he had just answered irritably, "we have no quarrels. No problems whatsoever. We-are-adjusted." This conversation had occurred in the middle of an open air classical music concert at 2:00 a.m. in the morning. There had been an impromptu hush in the proceedings, as a screaming fire engine, rushing by, had disturbed the concentration of one of the singing maestros. But she had lost all interest in the concert. Those words had fallen like heavy notes from his mouth. How desperately she had wanted that fire engine to return and ruin that concert and the hopeless purity of that morning's musical air.
On the recording cabinet were a number of records, haphazardly piled up. Every record sleeve bore the name "Parul." The handwriting was a childish scrawl and it brought a sudden twisted smile, like a leash to Anuja's face. There were the usual wedding photographs on the wall. But somehow they looked different. They seemed to have a defiant quality about them. No matter how hard she tried to analyze Parul's features, Anuja still couldn't find any fault with them. How pretty she looked. How confident.
"Is Parul still as pretty as she was on your marriage day?"
"That my dear, is the privilege of the wealthy," he replied from the kitchen. "People who think less somehow seem to retain much more of their beauty then you and I," he remarked artfully, wiping a plate and winking at her.
"Next time you come to my room, Siva darling, I'll make you count my wrinkles. And for each you'll have to offer a proper and convincing explanation." She had meant that as a witticism, but a heavy sadness had come upon her as she had finished speaking the sentence.
There was a burst of laughter from the kitchen, followed by a yelp of pain. "Ouch. I nearly burnt myself for your Spanish omelette. What about that, eh?" She wondered if this print of Picasso's had been a present to him. Yes, it was. There was her childish scrawl again. She noticed that she had misspelt 'anniversary.' Her eyes wandered swiftly between the Siva statue and the Picasso print.
"Did you give your wife a long lecture when she gave you that Picasso print? And did you talk about his blue period and Guernica and…."
"What's the matter with you, Anuja?" How absurd he looked with the frying pan in his hand and the cooking apron across his waist. "No, my dear, I didn't. I merely kissed her and said thank you."
She walked past him into the kitchen. "Hm, I expected your kitchen to be neat. That's where a wife leaves her 'stamp' you know. Those tiles look a little grimy round the edges, don't they? She should supervise over your Gurka servant more sternly. People who don't think much are quite neat and orderly you know. But your wife seems to be a notable exception. She…" "Look. Let's stop this charade, shall we? And come and eat your omelette."
"I don't want your damn omelette."
"Anuja! What's the matter with you? Look, come and lie down. I'll pull the shades up. You'll get a wonderful view of the sea. It's very soothing to look at the sea. Try it. We do it all the time."
It was a wonderful view of the sea. A wave of embarrassment at her own obviousness and viciousness swept over her. He lay beside her, softly stroking her hair. He was saying something about Conrad and the sea. She vaguely heard "Hemingway" and "Cuba" but her mind had begun to wander. Her eyes darted all over the room like a lizard in search of its appetite. The closet drawers were half open. He had said she had left in a hurry to catch the morning flight to Calcutta. The strap of a brassiere, crumpled underwear, and some panty hose were stuffed untidily in them. On the dressing table a number of lipsticks lay half open. There was a smear of rouge on one of the drawer handles. Hurriedly folded blankets had been pushed under the mattress. As she turned her head, the smell of an expensive shampoo flooded her nostrils from the pillow covers. She jumped up suddenly. Just then the phone rang.
"What's the matter, darling? What's bothering you? Hold on. Let me answer the - Hello? Parul? Yes, this is a surprise! But I thought you were going to come back Monday. Oh, I see. Where are you, at the airport? Okay. I'll send the car. No honey, I can't come. I have this meeting to prepare for. Yes, I'll send Ram Mohan. How are the kids? Tell them daddy is waiting. Come soon." He put the phone down and dialed the garage number. He gave instructions to Ram Mohan to proceed to the airport.
"I'm taking my gift with me." Anuja had picked up the Siva statuette. Cradling it in her arms she said, "I'll think of an inconspicuous one next time." He put down the phone and went towards her.
"Now don't be silly, Anuja. Just leave it there. Look I'm sorry, but I'll drop you home. Come, give me the Siva now. And stop behaving like a little girl."
"Don't touch me, Siva, Please. I said, don't touch me. Will you stop grabbing the damn statue? If you like it so much then take it, damn it, take it, TAKE IT, TAK-"
"No, Anuja, no." He held her tightly in his arms. She would have liked to slam the door on his face, or better still, hurl that Siva statue right through the window into the sea. But she just stood there. He was talking to her gently, soothing her…calming her like the sea which she could see in the distance. He picked up the car keys. She knew what she had to do. Go to the 15th floor. Come down to the 11th. Walk to the corner. Wait for his car. She looked at the statue for the last time before he closed the door. She wished she knew how to dance the Tandava.