It was obviously not a Nice Thing that Siddharth and Naseem were doing. Nevertheless, they did it; the sensuality of it was almost addictive and now, morning after morning, they left home late to spend the last few minutes glued to their binoculars. First, they had shared a single pair of binoculars. Now they had a pair apiece, borrowed from friends placidly unmystified by the newfound passion for bird watching.
Bird watching, it was, but of the wingless variety. Here it could be called Voyeurism; but with the single-minded attention to the object of study and the attempts at logical reasoning to arrive at correct conclusions to decipher the patterns of behavior, akin to professional Bird Watchers.
But this pair was hardly professional. Siddharth and Naseem were, had been, a happy-go-lucky pair. After the novelty of first setting up home had worn thin and the reality of a routine had set in, sheer boredom, especially with the early morning routine, had brought the first pair of binos into their little apartment.
It had been a chance discovery. Bored to tears with the usual morning exercises on TV, newspapers with their horror stories, Naseem had picked up the binoculars " to see what is going on around us".
Enthralled by the newness of their access into the private lives of their neighbors, both Siddharth and Naseem watched from their 5th floor eerie, the early morning joggers and keep fit enthusiasts in the park below; they watched with wonder the everyday routines in most households; and shared some amusement at the rounds of the dudhwala, greeted by a medley of disgruntled late-risers; and made a game of guessing who stayed up late the previous night and why.
Over the days, they got to know the morning routines of their neighbors from all the buildings around.... Through the binos, unashamedly peeking through uncurtained windows and open balcony doors. Siddharth wove fanciful little stories around the happenings in each home as they sat down to their own breakfast before rushing off to work.
It was perchance, while watching late on a Sunday morning that Siddharth spotted their Madonna.
They had seen her in the past, bustling about to pack her husband off to work, with tea, breakfast, tiffin, briefcase etc. everything in short order for an early departure.
But that Sunday, when Siddharth spotted her, she was coming out of her bath, delightfully and breathtakingly Nude.
She stepped out of the bathroom, with a towel atop her head, obviously after a headbath. A corner of the towel fell partially over one full breast.
Her body was ample – like the generous nudes painted by the Old Masters. The gait was almost regal, as she stepped out and walked to her bed. Sitting on it, she slowly took something in the palm of her hand from a bottle (oil?) and proceeded to massage it firmly into her body, the limbs, torso, neck, breasts...leaving each shining, lustrous alabaster as she caressed it almost sensually. Her movements were slow and steady, her fact impassive as she smoothened herself all over.
To the breathless Onlooker, the massage was sexual experience. When she reached a particularly sensitive spot, her impassive face did not prevent a shiver coursing through Siddharth, whose sharp intake of breath was audible, when she put her hand between her legs to the insides of her thighs.
Naseem came up "Let me see". Wordlessly he thrust the binos into her hands and pointed. She was just in time to see the Nude finish massaging her breasts and her hands before putting on her clothes: a worse-for-the-wear bra, shabbier underwear and a 'kitchen sari'.
Naseem let out a " Chhe" of disgust." Look at those awful clothes! With that body? "
Siddharth peeked. "What else do you expect? " He said matter-of-factly," for a day in the kitchen. Sunday in such homes probably means extra cooking".
The beauty of the woman and her actions was stunning; the contrasts to her home, routine and clothes striking. But had it been a one-time stand, they would probably have forgotten. But the next day, another Black Monday with Siddharth running late as usual. Naseem took a last peek, waiting for Siddharth to get ready to leave. " Oh, h, h " she breathed out.
"Let me see " Siddharth made a grab for the binos, but Naseem stepped out of his reach, still peering "Wow".
"What are you wowing for? It's for us guys to look".
"Can't a woman appreciate another woman's beauty? She's gorgeous".
Both were late for work the whole of the week.
They kept vigil almost all day, watching her go about an exhausting routine, household chores, pandering to the demands of husband and mother-in-law all day, with only those few sacred moments after her bath to herself. "Ye gods, she must be walking miles everyday in that house alone", fumed Naseem.
It became almost a ritual to watch at odd times as well, for the Nude had become their prey. Another pair of binos was procured so both could watch. Siddharth and Naseem fell into a routine of dressing early and focusing their binos, just in time to see her husband leaving or to see her emerge from the bathroom.
"What on earth is she doing, worshipping her body in that fashion every day?", pondered Naseem aloud.
"You got it, baby. I hadn't been able to put my finger on it. This is almost worship. But one doesn't worship oneself. Others do. What is she upto?"
"Have you noticed that hubby dear never seems to have a bath at home?"
"What on earth." Siddharth was startled. He thought it over and nodded. "Come to think of it, he never does. He gets up, shaves and leaves early. Comes home, changes, dinner, TV and bed. NO bath! By Jove, he must stink!" He gave a mischievous smile "You think, she's rubbing off his stink?"
Naseem swotted him on the head. "No, you twit, there's some mystery there. Let's find out."
Her eyes glinted and her smile suddenly sparkled with excitement. "Come on, please, aren't you bored with the office routines. We deserve a break ".
"This whole bird watching bit was your idea of a break from the routine, of morning TV and papers," Siddharth reminded her. "Do you want a break from that too?" His voice became gentler.
"Oh come on, don't stick in the mud. Let's follow him, see where he goes," suddenly her voice became serious and speculative; "why does he leave so early with no bath. It's too late for the morning shift unless he works round the corner," she reasoned.
"If it's morning shift, then he should be back much earlier and he'd definitely had a bath when he came back; besides, he dresses for office, so it can't be shift duty. And he comes home late. In fact, just in time for dinner and goes to bed then. Where can he possibly go after work, everyday? With no bath?"
Siddharth laughed "Isn't someone hung up on 'no baths' this morning"; he ruffled her hair lightly.
"We must find out, Siddharth," wailed Naseem.
"Yes, child, we will. But not today, tomorrow." He held up a silencing finger. "He's already gone, whom will we follow? Tomorrow, we'll go down early and wait for him. I have an important meeting today."
" Bloody meetings " grumbled Naseem, scuffling her feet, for all the world like a disappointed 8 year old.
The reaction was vintage Naseem, of the old, the bindaas quick to fall-in-love-and-out variety.
Both Siddharth and Naseem used to have a propensity to fall in and out of love, looking for the Quintessential Mr./Ms right. Their current pairing has lasted all of twenty-five months, beyond any previous relationship and five months after they had administered shock therapy to their respective homes with an announcement:
"We want to live in."
Siddharth's announcement had been greeted with an ominous silence.
"I said we want to live in."
The reaction was dangerously bland and low-key. "Well..."
"You gave it a deep long thought before making up your mind?"
"Obviously, Pa," Siddharth was almost irritated now by the slow responses. Pat came the retort:
"Then give us the time also to give it A thought, if not a deep, long one".
Siddharth "Can we talk this over?"
"Right away. Where is Naseem?"
"In my room."
"Well call her in. She should be here too."
"It's her life that we will be discussing too. She should be present to take it on the chin. She's an adult, no longer a child."
"Exactly." Siddharth's obnoxious side was beginning to surface. "She's an adult and so am I and we have decided that we want to live together. I'm informing you, Not asking you."
"In that case, there's nothing left to discuss, is there? You wished to inform only; and we have been duly informed. Thank you for the information," his father put the spectacles back on his nose and retreated into his paper. Siddharth's mother had still not uttered a word.
After a tense awkward silence, Siddharth had blurted out "That is not what I meant".
The newspaper did not relent ... the mother did. "What did you mean, tell us."
The asperity in the voice behind the paper came through loud and clear "Hasn't he said it all – as far as we are concerned, he wants to live together, presumably with Naseem. Presumably her parents have also been informed; and again presumably, they have made all their arrangements. And since they are only living together, not getting married, they don't even need your blessings, so you have only to be informed. Which you have been. Q E D".
Naseem must have been closer at hand. She walked into the room, a tentative smile on her face – "could we start again please - right from the beginning. Ten teren... last ten minutes wiped off the record, please, Mr. Speaker. "She gave a little bow in the direction of the Father and then bugled" ten teren..."
The paper came down a little, tentatively. "Well"
"We want to live together; we love each other very much and both of us are quite sure of our feelings for each other and we want to spend more time with each other without any hassles", it all came out in one rush.
"So we heard." Obviously no help was going to be forthcoming, so she took a deep breath.
The mother broke her silence and asked " WHY?"
Before Naseem could speak, Siddharth burst out "What a question, Ma. We want to live in. WHY? Why do people marry? Would you have asked that question if we had said we want to marry?"
Pat came the clear-headed answer "But you didn't say that you wanted to marry; you said you wanted to live together. That is why I asked WHY. Marrying is the more normal culmination of a relationship; may be you would call it the more conventional one. So why not marriage, why only living in?"
"Because we want to live together" Siddharth was bent on being stubborn and the mother was exaggeratedly patient.
"Marriage also entails living together, you know."
"Ma, why are you so hung up on marriage?"
"Beta, I could ask the same question. Why are you so hung up on living together only? You have not told us that, neither you nor Naseem. What are you living in for? What will you be hoping to achieve – it couldn't be more together, when you are already spending every waking moment together. What is it that you want, from each other and from us?"
The young couple was nonplussed by this turning of the tables. The father took over the offensive. "What is it that you expect to get from each other by living in, that you are not getting now or may not get with the 'married' label? Come on; tell us, we want to know. Reason it out with us."
Siddharth was still sulking. Naseem took over rather shakily for both. Slowly collecting her thoughts, she spoke up "Ma, Pa, you know, we've both had relationships in the past; none lasted, neither mine nor Siddharth's. But this time it's different. We both feel it. I don't know about Siddharth, but I know in my bones, that he'll never let me down. I want to be with him all the time, I feel secure with him around – in spite of his wild tantrums and his occasional madness," she gave a cheeky little grin, "that adds spice to the relationship."
The two elders looked at her appraisingly, taking in the cheeky grin which exposed one out-of-alignment tooth that, contrarily, added to her gamine charm. The smile had gone right upto her large doe eyes, adding a sparkle which had of late, become rare.
'What troubles this child?' wondered the mother silently.
"Humph-h," the father turned to his son, "what have you to say for yourself?" The tone was severe enough but the eyes betrayed a tinge of sympathy. "Why do you want to live in with Naseem?"
Siddharth had had time to collect himself. "See, Pa, Ma, as Naseem said, we want to be together. We feel comfortable together, not having to be on our best behavior all the time and all that. And I don't just love her, I like her too," suddenly he seemed quite helpless in trying to explain himself.
"Neither of you has been able to explain why you want to live together instead of getting married; and, what it is that you expect of us?"
"Marriage is for old people; too much responsibility, and socializing and adjustments; not our cup of tea," the unison was undoubtedly rehearsed.
The mother's eyes became serious "Even living in would require adjustment to be successful. Responsibilities are always there – even now as just boyfriend and girlfriend, aren't there? Are you trying to tell us that not ready for the responsibility of adjustment just yet? That you are now yet sure of yourselves and each other and want to try out the living together arrangement?"
Betrayal lay in the quickness of the united "Of course not". Naseem continued "kiss for you, letter for me; we are sure of our feelings for each other; it's just that..."
Siddharth took over as she paused "We want to get used to each other on a 24 hours basis; marriage is too much of a commitment just yet."
"Why don't you realize, Beta, that living together is more of a commitment? "
That shocked them. "More?"
"Yes more," declared the mother emphatically. "Look at it this way. In ordinary society, love is supposed to culminate in marriage. After that, nobody bothers about you, because when you get married, you are not doing anything out of the ordinary. But when love culminates in a living-in arrangement, you are behaving extra-ordinary. Eyebrows are raised, fingers are pointed and people do look and look again, and then again and again ...because you have asked for attention.
And then everybody waits to see what will happen, to see how you trip up. When a marriage begins to trip, most do, believe me; many will rush in to help. Many survive, some don't. These days, that is no very big deal.
But when a live-in arrangement trips, most people come in to throw stones, to say ' I told you so', no question of help.
Beta, that is what you may be exposing Naseem to – have you thought of that. How much more commitment is required to save the person you like, from double tragedy, when you fall out of love? The fact that you have opted for a live-in arrangement implies that both of you are looking for a simple exit, if it doesn't pan out, doesn't it?"
The two young people looked at each other and stood up "we want to talk it over alone ".
"Go right ahead" they made a somber exit, holding hands. The mother looked up to see the concern in her mind mirrored in the father's eyes. "I always thought that she would be the one to tone down Siddharth's bravado at unconventionality. Perhaps he does things just to be different, to stand out in a crowd. But this?" She pondered aloud. "I wonder what her parents had to say?"
"Have they told them yet? Otherwise we would have heard from them by now."
"What are we going to do? What do we say? What stand can we take?" The two older people looked at each other, both silently torn between sympathy for their over-emotional offspring and the knowledge of the demands society placed on individuals.
"What sort of damage control can we do? If they were getting married, it would have been simple enough to convince them to live home to cut expenses. As it is, she is here practically all day. But living-in." The doubt on the Mother's face was visible. "How long can that be kept under wraps?"
"Will they want to keep it under wraps?" Father was Asperity personified again. "If I know your son, he'll go tomtomming it to the next world. No", he firmed up, "they can't live-in here. Bhale ayen jayen, but let them learn the responsibility of taking their own decisions and defying everybody by making their own living arrangements." "Fine", came the relieved response.
The younger couple took much longer to reach their decision; the arguments going back and forth in muted tones, barely audible to their elders, except for an occasional almost hysterical "No" from Naseem, with periods of silence in between.
Several hours passed. The mother took glasses of milk and snacks to the room, passing it through a crack held open by Siddharth, Naseem was not visible.
Ramesh, Lavina and Prem came home from their respective jobs. The older couple waited till all three were home before telling them the developments.
Ramesh was the sturdy, ever-equanimous older brother; the mother had often suspected him of even being secretly jealous of Siddharth's flamboyance. His reaction was typical as he washed his hands of the whole affair "Trust Siddharth to decide on something foolish. As he sows, so shall he reap".
His wife, Lavina, was almost hysterical. All the social niceties that guided her life were offended "What will people think?" She almost screamed.
The older man's response was deliberately equanimous "That is the least of our worries. We should be more concerned about the outcome of this adventure on our child."
"You call this an adventure? An adventure in living in sin? Who'll marry Prem then? Or are we planning some such arrangement for him also " was Lavina's frenzied response.
Her mother-in-law moved in between the irate Sasur and Bahu. "Don't you think that that may have occurred to us also. We are neither obtuse, nor senile, you know. Perhaps we had all better calm down; here, have some tea first. Try to be rational, for the sake of All Concerned". There was a deliberate emphasis on the last two words as the Mother looked straight in Lavina's eyes, daring her to speak further.
In quite a contrary fashion, Lavina's relationship with the Father had always been more prickly than that with the Mother; the old man loved to pick on her passion for conformity, which was why Ramesh had picked on her in the first place.
That had been Ramesh's one and only rebellion, perhaps a reaction to the otherwise unorthodox tone of his parents and the home they had created. Both Ramesh and Lavina lived life by the Rules and treated the rest of the family with a wariness that was hardly complimentary.
But the others took them in their stride, humorously ribbing the pair for their staidness. Often mother, uncomfortably aware of the toll of unorthodoxy in everyday life, was forced to be umpire between Lavina and her sasurji or devarji, Siddharth.
The youngest son Prem was shrewd, oscillating between convention and unconventional as and when it suited his convenience.
Tea was passed round before Mother spoke again. "We have to consider the feelings of all of our offspring – you Lavina and Ramesh, Prem and Siddharth, plus now Naseem. We can't overlook Siddharth, just because he is different. He is still our son. But first let them decide what they want; only then can we negotiate a position which is acceptable to all."
"But you can't allow them to live together!"
"In the first place, Lavina, they are little short of that just now. You well know it, so do not exaggerate. And in the next place, there is no question of allowing. They are both adults and can do what they damned please. You can like it, or lump it, it will make no difference either way to them."
Prem listened intently; 'are they for it or against it?' He wondered about his parents' attitudes, as he helped set the table for dinner and then went to knock at the still firmly closed door.
At last, Siddharth's door opened and they appeared still holding hands tight, Siddharth somber and Naseem distinctly weepy. The mother moved forward purposefully. "All talk later. First dinner. You two had not had a thing today. Everything is always better on a full stomach. Come along," she pushed Naseem firmly into a chair and started serving.
Dinner was accomplished in stilted silence, only broken when Siddharth very cheekily ribbed Lavina, "aren't you too shocked to eat? I somehow thought you would be."
"We want to sleep over it," he announced laconically after dinner.
The Father asked him "What have her parents said?"
"We have not told them yet. I will just drop Naseem home now."
"And tell them, what?" the old man prompted.
"Nothing yet. I said that we want to sleep over it."
The older man's voice became stern. "Sit down, both of you and first listen to me. You came to us this morning with a proposal...sorry, not a proposal but an announcement. You knew that it would throw all of us into turmoil. Now after almost six to eight hours of debate between you two alone, you want to sleep on it. What has happened? Tell us, maybe we can help." the voice had grown softer.
"May be they have fallen out of love, or chickened out," thrust in Lavina. Before Siddharth could follow his venomous look with a verbal missile, the Father intervened, "Lavina, this is a serious matter; and it involves a daughter of another house, just like you are. It is not to be a source of levity."
"Pa, we have been discussing what you and Ma said to us earlier and Naseem needs time..."
"Time for what? She said she had made up her mind," the Mother's gentle tone was nevertheless insistent. "Has she changed her mind about you? You must have discussed the pros and cons of living together versus marriage, before you came to us. What has happened now?"
The questioning became more insistent as the father did and older brother all got into the act. Siddharth looked quizzingly at his younger brother, as if asking 'have you nothing to say?'
Prem shrugged expressive shoulders 'don't look at me. Your baby, Man, you handle it. I'll look after mine when she comes.'
Naseem broke down. Placing her head in the Mother's ample lap, she heaved with great heart-wrenching sobs. "I can't, I can't". Quite unconsciously, the Mother started soothing, placing her care-worn hands on Naseem's head, running down her shoulders. "can't what ? okay, first cry your heart out then tell us."
Gradually the intensity of the sobs slackened. The Mother wiped Naseem's tears and passed her a glass of water. "Now," she said firmly, "tell me, what is it that you cannot do ?"
"I cannot get married. I will live with Siddharth, let my parents disown me, no matter."
Siddharth spoke up "why should we get married ? Come tell me, out of 100 couple that you know, how many will not speak ill of each other at first chance ? who don't thrust spears into each other every time they speak – if they speak to each other at all ? who would not dance at the other's funeral, if it were not for the fear of society and what people will say ? who are remaining married only for social or economic reasons, for the children or for convenience, or because it is too much trouble getting divorced?"
Suddenly, he was on the offensive "What is the difference between living together and marriage? only that the rituals are not performed. And when they are not performed, then one does not have to go through even more exhausting rituals to end the relationship, that's all, isn't it ?
we don't need to get married to 'prove' our feelings for each other; nor do we want to tie each other down with marriage – as long as it is good, fine, otherwise, arriverdici....."
It was a long and passionate monologue, through which Naseem sat impassive. The Mother had darted several looks at her and mentally taken her own hand to her mouth, wondering why she had not recalled earlier that Naseem's home environment may perhaps have made her wary of marriage.
Aloud she asked "Naseem, how far do you agree with what Siddharth on this ?"
The girl took a deep breath "the whole way, Ma, the whole way. he would have happily opted for marriage. it is I who can't.."
"Why" all the others also waited, hanging onto every word.
"Let me tell you what I have seen of marriage. My father and mother always hated each other's guts. My whole childhood was blighted by their unending battle to be the last one to make a thrust. It took me years to take their battles in my stride ... I still cannot.
My father drinks and womanizes, Mummy drank and smoked and partied endlessly. Earlier, Daddy used to threaten a divorce at least once a month, but he never went those last few steps....maybe because she was so beautiful, maybe because of me.
I was fifteen when Mummy met with her accident which left her paralyzed from the waist down. Ever since I have seen her beauty petrify inch by miserable fraction of an inch because of the worsening of her temper and her desire to make everyone suffer because she is suffering.
Daddy has now found love", that startled the listeners, "she is a lovely person, I have met her too. They love and care for each other so much; but they cannot marry. Daddy cannot divorce Mummy, even if she would grant him one....after all what will people say 'dumping a cripple'.....
So they continue squabbling every day, throwing poison at each other, rubbing each other's souls raw, all for what ? why ? because they are married and cannot just walk away?"
There was a brief silence.
Then the Mother spoke. "It is unfortunate that you have seen and allowed only one," she paused to select appropriate words, "negative instance to color your view. Take it from me, people do walk away from marriages too, without going through the ritual of divorce; and not all marriages are so luckless that even two decades of being together has not lit some spark of affection. You must try to overcome the nausea created by one unhappiness and not let it discolor your own life totally. Why don't you wait some more time until you are really sure of yourself and of each other ?"
The argument raged back and forth late into more than one night, with nary a contribution, a murmur from Naseem's parents. The Father had put his foot down against going to meet them.
"They should have come; if they are abdicating their responsibility, we will look after Naseem's interests without involving them," to which his daughter-in-law, Lavina's retort had been "You are partial to her", before Ramesh dragged her off to their room to keep peace.
The long and the short of it was that they did what they wanted, living together in a large rented bed-sitter with generous balconies and a miniscule kitchen, which suited them just fine.
Naseem's parents divorced her.
The shadowing was no adventure. Their prey was blissfully unaware of being tailed. So he led them, unsuspecting to his 'love-nest', an unpresuming house, perhaps less well-kept or more lackadaisical than his home.
With some trepidation, they knocked and were let in by an unpresuming lady, brisk, sure of movement and wary of eye. She looked questioningly at the Man and he looked questioningly at Siddharth and Naseem. The storm broke.
"Why ? why ?" it was out like a shot from Naseem's mouth after the uncomfortable introductions were performed.
"I don't want her; never did. I wanted a smart working wife, not a mentally retarded household drudge. But my mother wanted her, so let her have her household drudge."
Naseem protested in vain " But she is your wife; you married her and produced two children too."
"So ? haven't I done my duty ? to her and to my mother and to the kids ? I am still providing for all of them. Am I not entitled to something for myself ?"
"What about your wife ? Is she not entitled to anything except household drudgery? She must be having some personal wants, some desires ....."
There was a raw passion in Naseem's voice, but the only response she got was a grunt : "I have done the best I could; see I do not spend a paisa on Nirali. She earns for herself and is careful not to produce any kids. All we do is spend sometime together, talking, listening to music sometimes in the mornings or evenings after office..."
"Don't you realize," Naseem reasoned, "you are giving her more time than you give your wife ...... "; the frenzy in her voice set off alarms bells in Siddharth's mind and he jumped to his feet, all but dragging Naseem with him. "Phir milenge, I have an appointment," he flung over his shoulder.
Naseem bristled, but only after they had traversed a safe distance did Sidhharth slow down to round on her. "Next you would have told him that we had been spying on his household and seen his wife in the altogether !!"
"Fat lot he would have cared" she responded childishly.
"Grow up, Naseem. You don't say such things to guys. He'd thrash me to an inch of my life."
"Now why would he when he doesn't care for her ?"
"Love or not, she is his wife. HIS wife and another man has seen her in the nude; do you realize that after thrashing me, he would probably go home and kill her ?"
"Is that what you would do ?" her tone was serious and questioning.
"If you have to lounge around in your birth suit, I'd expect to be around, and the curtains drawn please."
"Spoilsport. Who wants to feel dank AC air on the bums. I'd want to feel the sun and the breeze on my tits, not hide them behind dark heavy curtains. What would you do ?"
Siddharth's grin became cheeky. "If you have to shed clothes, why not for me, rather than after me ?"
"No, come on, now, tell me what would you do ?"
"Now... if it were my wife, I'd thrash her too, for laying herself open to Peeping Toms."
"Only your wife ? not me ?"
"But," he returned slowly, deliberately, "you are not my wife - you are my friend. I can't own you, presume on you, claim ' haque' on you as a man would a wife. "
"Does it make that much of a difference ?" now she was questioning keenly, carefully watching him, absorbing the nuances. "I don't feel that I possess you any the less because we are not married".
"We can't be twins," he retorted with some asperity. "You have chosen to keep your escape hatch open. When you did not have the faith to place yourself fully in my hands as a wife, how can I presume to possess you totally ?" his words shot home, through the hurt maze in Naseem's mind.
"Is that how it works ?" she asked in a little-girl voice, "if that's how it works, then let's get married !!"
Siddharth was nonplussed.
But the Father and the Mother never did know quite what hit them when Naseem's bundle of enthusiasm burst in that evening, announcing :
"We want to get married."