Suvarna was still a bit shell-shocked from the frenetic wave and mouthed greeting from a stranger walking off the plane. Second looks had revealed it to be her younger sister.... "Thank God for tedious customs procedures," she thought wryly, "They allow one to absorb such shocks".
Sudha's face and person had been barely recognizable, layered as it was in rolls of fat. The once-svelte figure, all of 5'3", seemed to have decreased in height in direct proportion to the widening of its girth. A once finely etched profile with a shapely nose was now lost to a multiple chin in a face still distinctly humorous, as of old.
The clothes were elegant enough ..distinctly U S NRI, but those shoes ... ugh ... those awful shoes sent an involuntary shiver down Suvarna's spine.
"How could Sudha spend money only such ugly things", she was just thinking and then caught herself in amazement as her sister extracted an exquisitely molded foot from "that awful shoe", arched the soles flipped her painted toes and proceeded to massage the sculpted heel. Sudha cast her a knowing look.
"Now you know why the guys go crazy ? Seeing these feet emerge from those boots...they see those beautiful doe-like Indian eyes, these famous pouting lips, these enormous melon breasts and then these sexy feet. They go crazy trying to figure out what's between the legs and how to get it......" she trilled, a shrill sound that jarred all the more, emanating as it did from that enormous bulk.
A delicately pained look crossed Suvarna's face. She glanced away; Sudha followed her glance to the reddening back of the chauffeur's neck and giggled.
"Is this what marriage into a respectable business family has turned you into? I seem to remember you something quite different. Perhaps I should be glad that for me, Pa answered that famous Ad for a Green Card Professional. See the freedom it gave me ......"
Recognizing the onset of a flood of reminiscences, perhaps embarrassing, with that mutual understanding of old, they stopped to chat in private before reaching the house.
"What actually happened to you ? You never wrote about the divorce; thereafter all those men, I did not want to broach the subject in their presence when I was there."
"That's the famous old Suvarna tact coming to the fore. perhaps it was for the best,....for Pa and Amma anyway, it was best that they died so soon after getting me married. They never knew who they were really marrying me to"
Suvarna shot up an eyebrow. "The green card professional, handsome, 5-figure salary, own house, etc.etc etc..."
"Yes, Dear, you must remember the "Jhat mangni, pat bya wedding". They were so thrilled, so was I and so were my in-laws. Remember how the old man kept on and on 'Hamare wahan aisa hota hai, taisa hota hai' and all the rest of it...if only I had told them unke wahan ka beta kaisa hota hai".
The younger sister dived into her tale almost eagerly, getting it off her chest to some-one back home finally ......
Sudha's Tale: A Green Card Alimony
"We were in India for barely a week after the wedding and I almost went crazy trying to seduce my handsome husband, but no go. He didn't touch me on the first night...obviously it was too late and both of us dead beat. The next night he was sozzled, the third he spent with his Dad till I fell asleep and the fourth with his buddies for a delayed stag party. Then the next night the whole family stayed up catching up 'cause we were to leave the next day, so, .....pause for effect.... I reached the great U S of A a virgin... a bloody good damned married 8 days virgin! And you'll never guess the next....
Dramatic Pause ---
At the airport, I was received by my husband's Husband --- he was a blood Homo. That handsome hulk, the professional Green card holder etc. etc. was a Homo, and his parents had never guessed !
Suvarna gasped aloud.
Actually he wasn't such a bad sort. He let me off quite gently, explaining that he owed it to his parents and that to make sure I got something out of it, he promised not to divorce me until I got my Green Card, which should take long enough to establish my credentials back home for having " tried to save the marriage ".
"Well," I thought to myself, "Here's pretty mess, what with me dying to try out sex. But the question was with whom? And believe me, seeing those two guys billing and cooing to make up for the three week absence drove me up the wall. In time, it was the thought of my boom-boom haw-haw father -in-law and his 'Hamare wahan', which drove me off on a wild goose chase. It's a wonder I didn't turn into a nymphomaniac, the way I ran through boyfriends. It took me six months, six awful months of dreadful sex to surface and take stock of my life and its mess.
I couldn't write home, it would have been too much for Pa-Amma and terrible for Rajiv; he was actually quite a decent sort, even moved heaven and earth for my Green Card. Actually that was a real laugh. People offer green cards in dowry. I got mine as part of Alimony !! Along with reimbursement of every penny that Pa had spent on our wedding, my clothes, jewelry, the lot. He actually got me married, his husband gave me away...it was almost amusing.
"But", she reflected sadly," by that time, something was gone from inside me. I just couldn't take anything from anybody or hang on to anyone, I let the guys slip through my fingers, running through boyfriends, husbands, lovers, whatever.
Thank God for only 2 things, my work and no kids. The one kept my spirits alive and the other allowed me no regrets with each break."
The outpouring not only wrung her out emotionally, it seemed to have purged her, as if by confessing to the seaminess of her foreign jaunts, she had dipped in the proverbial Ganga. She took some huge gasps of air and downed the now-cold coffee in a gulp. "Now you know about my past in one go, let's go and let me unravel your present".
Suvarna's present : a Showcase for a Living Doll
It was a short drive home now. "A new road is being laid, so we'll have to walk a bit" announced Suvarna apologetically. The gate was imposing enough, elaborately ornate wrought iron black, with a tall pole holding aloft a brass bell of the type found in smaller temples and a colorful plaited bell pull. Before Sudha finished thinking wryly whether the sound would actually carry into the house, she was inside the gate and letting out a gasp of pleasure.
It was a sight for sour eyes and vintage Suvarna -- obviously age had not withered he talent for creating small niches of beauty around herself, nor had money coarsened her taste.
Suvarna had not only collected her antiques but also used them well. The lawn was a bit more than handkerchief-sized; so adornment was restricted to the borders, with artfully placed artifacts interspersed with a variety of obviously expensive and well-tended plants, a carved elephant here, a robust horse there, a svelte apsara with her mates opposite.
A tiny pond boasted of a single lotus fronting the last step of a miniature temple atop a mini hill backed by large umbrella palms, which obliterated the outlook for any Peeing Toms next door.
The house was in a locality, Sudha recognized, monopolized by Old Money, where land was priced the Earth-Per-Square-Inch. Selling out would have been sacrilege and commuting from the new villa and farmhouse colonies totally chi-chi. So what could poor rich people do, but add-on value to their over-priced properties?
The marble bit walk ended on a marble veranda, if it could be called that, the entrance dominated by a Nandi sitting square in the middle, looking into a large hall, apparently the length of the house, divided into several conversation areas. Off on one side a stately staircase led upto to a landing fronting a set of rooms which ringed one large area of the hall. The arrangement was obviously replicated from the other side of the massive room, allowing another gallery of suites to overlook the other half. All very, very elegant, very, very old and equally luxuriously expensive.
Sudha sat pondering, waiting for sleep. Suvarna apologized for the absence of her offspring.
"They are entertaining in their own wing. You'll meet them tomorrow".
Dinner had been a somber affair; her famous Jiga, a tiger of the business world, had turned out to be a surprisingly tacit man, as spare of word as he was of frame. Graying fashionably at the temples, well turned out, courteous but silent. "Was it disapproving?" Sudha wondered.
The heaviness he generated was anathema to his father, a charming urbane host, with a white mane, a tiny belly and a twinkle in his eye, as he sparred humorously with the sisters. The affection for his daughter-in-law was unmistakable. After dinner, Suvarna had taken his arm and led him into the garden for his "constitutional".
Sudha declined " let me get to know my Jiga", she had said, not quite knowing what she had let herself in for. Later she was to conclude " this marriage has only survived because of the old man", as she sat delving in her old family knowledge.
Suvarna was several years her senior and at 18, she had made a brilliant match, doing her middle class parents proud. Sudha had been still at school when Suvarna finished with her childbearing at 21, with another milestone, the family heir and the traditional "Ghar ki Lakshmi".
Now, she was a classy mother-in-law, the epitome of Aging with Grace. Over the years, her looks had matured and she had apparently learnt to cultivate a style all her own. Gossip magazines had made legends of her sari and jewel collections, invitations to her parties were much sought after and the house had been subject of several photo features. All of which was very nice, but for that shadow behind the smile in her eyes when she countered her father-in-law's rallies. When she had come to drop her off at her bedroom, the younger sister could not resist asking " God, Sue, How can you stand it !!"
"What ? "
" The Sphinx... I tried every trick in the book to talk to your husband " she threw her hands up in the air expressively shaking her head in frustration. Suvarna"s only reply was a slight movement of her head and a tiny smile, half humorous, half ironic, as she let herself quietly out of the room.
Awaiting sleep, Sudha heard the two distinct wings of the house -- one settling down to sleep as the mistress sent in glasses of saffron and pista flavored milk to the bedrooms and the other, where the young people were obviously enjoying an evening of music.
"That is our Mastani room", the old man had told her. In deference to her querying eyebrow, he explained "Mastani was the mistress of Baji Rao Peshwa, who built a special wing for her at the Shanwarwada palace in Pune. It had been remarkably resurrected at the Kelkar Museum after the palace was burnt down. Suvarna spent hours there and then recreated it with some design changes for our musical evenings."
When she had peeked in the next day, Sudha saw the music parlor, divided into two sections by a semi-circular, low, carved screen, barely a foot high, waxed almost black. It separated the generous enclosure for the performers from the baithak for the audience....for was it perhaps, for some VIP guest to hold forth in the company of family to invitees seated outside?
"She had learnt the lessons of wealth well" thought Sudha, noting the pristine white of the fluffed pillows and bolsters, a quick and efficient change from the merrymaking into the wee hours.
The visit fell into a routine. Sudha saw her older sister with new eyes. The Anglicized desi lass had make a remarkable changeover from Indian English to chase Hindi and even Urdu; philosophy, yoga, meditation, even riyas with a music teacher every other day, learned discussions and chess with her father-in-law who apparently escorted her to seminars and workshops in between preparing for the next party. But something was wrong. What ?
Sudha could not quite put her finger on it. Her relations were warm, even with son and bahu, the Sphinx supremely indifferent to all, especially Suvarna's ironic sallies.
"Show me those famous collections". Suvarna led her into her suite, another miniature haveli, executed in soothing pastels, carved jharokhas, mughal dado and priceless artefacts.
A thought distracted from the collection. "Tell me, how does the Sphinx fit in here?
"In this room, I mean. Isn't it too feminine for him?'
"This is mine. his suite is down the corridor"
"Really Su ... separate bedrooms. Since when ?"
"I took this over when my ma-in-law died and naturally did it over completely.
"What about Pa ?"
"He has his own suite next door, between yours and mine"
"Runs in the family, eh...does bahuji also ...?"
"Not yet, but who has seen the future ?"
"But why, Su ? it can't be his silences, can it...after all you had two kids together, haven't you ?
Suvarna seemed set to brush the question away. What had made her change her mind, that fateful day ?
"We last went to bed together when I conceived Mini. The kids ended our relationship," the silence became almost pregnant." Sujoy is what I call negative religious."
She answered the question in her sister's face. "What I call positive religion is that which brings, if not happiness, at least peace, a joy, a celebration in the creations of God, a helping hand, a lightness of spirit not necessary that one be overflowing in the milk of human kindness.
My mother-in-law's brand of religion was the negative one. fasts, tapasya, penance for all worldly joys -- even for conjugal relations. Can you beat that ? It is only necessary for procreation, she taught him that and he learnt those lessons well.
as soon as I became pregnant, I was shifted to her rooms, with their dark somberness and diya-battis day and night. My only escape was going home for the confinement and she prolonged that till Muna was almost eight months.
After that the dictum was "no sex as long as you are breastfeeding". Muna was a year old when she lifted her ban and what do you know -- first time unlucky, I got pregnant and back to square one. this time, the pregnancy was difficult enough for me to get too little respite from hating him for abandoning me to the tender mercies of his mother, to even miss sex.
"That pure white organdie," she pondered dilatorily, " sure hid a spiteful heart - she loved her son to distraction and hated all the rest of us, her husband, her daughters and her bahu, for distracting from his "Glory", whatever that was ....what was he ever , beyond an efficient money-making machine. If he ever even had to select his own wardrobe, he would be on the Worst Dressed List in no time...." meow, meow....
"Then," prompted the younger sister breathlessly, eyes wide open to absorb this new side of her older sibling
"Mini was breastfed for almost three years. Then one day, I read somewhere that women, " a broad smile broke out over Suvarna"s nostalgia, "with high fever should avoid feeding their babes. Can you imagine my excitement....swiping a cut onion from the kitchen from under her beagle eyes; I wrapped it in half a dozen hankies to smother the smell, carted it around shopping until I could safely tuck it into my armpit and then walked around for what seemed hours on the sunniest footpaths to work up a temperature! God, how disgusted I was with myself that day, for being such a healthy cow. When the temperature was raging, I headed home, but she caught me at the stairs and it was no go...I had to wait for my next period, have the ritual bath after five days and then only would I be allowed to "pollute" my husband. Madame's orders...' she threw up her hands recalling the bygone despair.
Now I too learnt to be devious. This time, I waited beyond her prescribed five days. On the seventh day, Sujoy was due back from a business trip and I was not on hand at home to receive him. Spent the day shopping for a new sari to wear home after a full day in the parlor making myself over as a modern day Cleopatra...it was the works, massage, henna, facial, treatments, make-up , everything."
"Just you wait. He was in the study with his father when I reached home and I literally sneaked into the house and straight into my room, to avoid bumping into her. He came in a good two hours later.... Two long hours of me on tenterhooks you can only imagine; and then..." she paused and the anguish of the recollection flashed across her expressive face.
"What are you doing here ?"
"I live here, it's my room too, isn't it ? " she had replied with a quick nervous smile as she approached him with hands outstretched. Quickly before she could lose her nerve, she wound her hands around his neck and smiled shyly up at him.
But before she could go any further, he had picked up the offending arms with two disapproving fingers each and returned them to her side.
"Look, I don't like or believe in this nonsense. Now we've got two children, no more. I can't afford to waste anymore time and energy on doing extra pooja or penance instead of running my business."
Suvarna had been completely stunned, quite unable to comprehend what exactly her husband meant.
"What do you want me to do ?"
"Everything, look after the kids, help Amma with the house, do your pooja whatever, only don't bother me with this sex nonsense. I want none of it."
" But......but ...what.."
He cut in ruthlessly, " no buts and no whats. You are my wife and the mother of my children, bahu of my parents. That you shall be to the end of your days. Only no more dirty sex for us...it's too unclean.
We have done our duty for the family by producing heirs...now no more," he stressed the point as he stalked off the dressing room to change and then promptly and peacefully fell asleep.
Suvarna picked up her tale somberly. " You can imagine my state, first it was a stunned silence, then oceans of tears and by morning I was at his feet, begging : where I had gone wrong.
But was he cold. He called in his mother to read me a lecture on morals, wifely duty to follow hubbie's dictats and the virtues of abstention etc. etc.; I don't even remember what else, I was so plain stupefied I was reduced to a zombie wasting away in this very house, no life, no identity, no purpose, nothing just a flitting shadow...." she was lost for sometime in traumatic memories of the Ultimate Rejection.
"Then..." came the prompt, " something, someone must have brought about this transformation. You hardly look like a frustrated, sex-starved, teenage widow. Was it A lover, or lovers plural ?"
"How long ?"
"Many, many years"
"No-one ever found out , friends, servants, kids, hubby dear, sasu dear, someone?"
"We were very very discreet, the circumstances were such, couldn't afford to be found out and then things also worked out right. Sometimes though, I wonder whether Mini has at least, suspected. And if so, whether she has discussed it with anyone. Sometimes, I see that querying look in their eyes, but they have never broached the subject and I have held my peace. Why spoil their relationship with their father ?"
"No-one ever saw or noticed the difference in you ? your being, your personality, everything ?"
"Of course, the changes are evident. but I learnt, at times painfully, to withdraw from all other personal relationships. It was dangerous ground, either way, I had no words to explain my actions or my motives to anyone, did I ?"
"Start at the beginning. how did it start, where did you meet him, who is he , what is he like, was he married, his wife ...?"
A serene smile lit up Suvarna"s face. " he is The complete man, a wonderful person, so vital, so alive, so knowledgeable, easy to talk to, to laugh with, to learn from.
He has taught me everything that I am today; turned my convent education around on its head and introduced me to Sanskrit, Hindi, Urdu even French, to religion, philosophy and art. Made me read and meditate, explore the world and the depths of myself to develop my own personality and to step out of the shadows to take charge of my life. He used to tease me that he had converted me into an Indian."
"How did you meet, where ?"
"He just came upon me one day, drooping in my room, as usual I was weeping and could not explain why. Somehow, he seemed to understand, no words were required, perhaps because of his own shriveled up wife. He just took me into his arms to comfort me and that spark was lit. We couldn't help ourselves, both of us were so starved".
"Here, in this room ?"
"No, in that one, Sujoy's. I was still there then, this one came much later."
"Then he was a known person, familiar enough to enter the family apartments ?"
"Of," Suvarna checked herself. "Yes, yes, he was "
"What can I tell you. it was such a wonderful release from such a gray jail, a relief to get it out, to talk about it like a normal person to a normal person. Of course, we were very careful about synchronizing ourselves with mother-in-law's satsang sessions and temples, but then it was not only sex. We went to other temples, museums and palaces in the cause of my re-education ."
" For how long ?"
" For months and months. I don't know how long "
" How could you manage it ? " she started skeptically and then tuned into a new line of thought, "Even now ?"
" Of course not, not at this age. We're too old for sex. But that affection and love and trust doesn't just go away like that, does it ? It continues to mellow and to mature and to give perhaps even greater little pleasures".
"Yyou mean to tell me that this paragon just stopped having you and went off, out of your life just like that ? Not taking a thing to clear off ? What sort of a man was he "
" You said it, not I. Paragon, but fortunately, he is not out of my life. It has slowed down gradually, but we still look after each other, without any sex now."
" And no-one ever saw you or suspected a thing ?"
" My mother-in-law ..." the younger sister pounced " what about sasu dear ?"
" She caught us red-handed ."
Sudha let out a low wolf whistle " and in all these years, she did not breathe a word because she had stopped hubby dear from fucking you? I like that for irony."
"Not at all. it wasn't that way. Actually, you know, for all her mean ways, she was, in her own way, a pious soul. and she really believed that sex was evil, a sin."
Suvarna was suddenly quite grave as she recalled the past.
"She must have been stunned when she walked in on us on that fateful day. And believe me, she was struck dumb and I mean really physically dumb. She had a stroke and couldn't speak for sometime. Her eyes used to haunt me, made us guilty as Hell.
But for her, it must have been the worst possible retribution. How our sins catch up with us. After all that raving and ranting about sex, being unable to rail against me or to tell her beloved son....that was the worst possible punishment that could have been inflicted on her. "
"Ill bet. that bitch knew all the moves, didn't she. so that is how she broke it up ?"
"Not at all. somehow, she managed to convey it to her beloved son before she died. Immediately after the ceremonies, he let fly. All the gaalis on record, good, bad, indifferent, all the adjectives in the bad dictionary, he just pounded away at me. But strangely, the more Sujoy railed, the less guilty I felt, the calmer I became.
Then it had been Suvarna"s turn to speak, to refuse to bear his load of shit or guilt. After all it was all his mother's fault, she had thrown back at him. Had she not twisted his mind, they could have been a normal couple, and this sort of a situation would never have arisen.
And then, what was it that had been taken from him, that had actually been his?
She bore his name, lived under his roof, ate off his table, ran his home, entertained his associates, raised his kids, even slept in his bed.
He had not wanted either her love or her body --- had rejected both outright, so why crib if someone else appreciated them. " Be happy, " she had thrown the words at him, "That I have been careful enough not to have you declared a cuckold publicly ".
At that, he had almost had an apoplexy and for a moment, Suvarna had run scared. then he stabilized and she saw his eyes narrowing in calculation, thinking perhaps of how he could benefit from the situation. The realization was an ice cold shower over her heated brain.
Suvarna decided there and then that she too would benefit from this situation, everyone would, including her children. Now with her life at stake, she learnt quickly to drive a bargain.
Sujoy was firm. " No divorce. I will not be humiliated in public and the memory of my mother must not be besmirched ."
" Fine," Sunanda parried, " No divorce, but I will not live at your mercy either. No blackmail please. I want an independent income at my disposal, from outside your business, in case you run that into the ground."
That had been a fell blow to his ego. "And no more living frugally in this glorified hut. If you want me to continue to be merely your Living Doll for show, then build a suitable showcase for that Doll."
She had wrenched from him promise of funds for the renovation of the entire estate, annual holidays for herself and the children, their boarding schools (so that they would not come across the truth), wardrobes, the works. Only one ground rule : you lead your life, I lead mine, but no-one must know that I am nothing except your biggest social asset.
"He didn't touch him ?" breathed the astounded listener
"He couldn't. Not in a thousand years. All he did, all he was concerned about was to extricate total power to run the business as he though fit. Suited us just fine. He ran the business as he thought fit and we ran our lives as we thought fit.
I moved out of his room into this suite, erstwhile mother-in-law's abode. It almost killed him to see me do it over, but I stood my ground.
But believe me, it was as if a heavy yoke had been lifted from our shoulders. As Sujoy got used to the situation, for the first time, I could afford to be seen with him as my official escort in lieu of a husband who was too busy making money. For the first time, I took the kids for a holiday and he was there too. Later we went abroad, lots of places where I picked up some of these beauties you see scattered around the house.
We became regulars at the seminar circuits, learning about all sorts of things, meeting people, making contacts that Sujoy often drove benefit from. But they were, " her tone became poignant, always only contacts, not friends, never friends. That was one luxury neither of us could afford.
And that twinge of guilt was always there at the bottom of our hearts. but Sujoy's distaste was always so comically apparent at home and so dispassionately disguised in company that it gave us a perverse sort of pleasure in flaunting and in tweaking his tale when he was helpless to react in public," she ended with a mischievous chortle.
" How did it end then ?"
" It didn't. how do normal couples grow old, they just get more used to each other, know each other in and out, generally slow down and then a new pattern of life is set, with new fragrances which linger on...."
" But this was different "
" Not that different actually. Maana, we did not take those saat pheras with each other or produce Muna and Mini, but everything else was our joint venture, even raising the kids to whom he was more Father than their biological one; he even helped with the planning of those fabulous monthly does on which Sujoy places such a business success premium"
"Does Sujoy know that ?"
" What ?"
"That his sauten, or whatever it would be called, is planning his parties ?"
"There's little he can do about it, without getting egg on his face; and if he wants to remain on that Best Party list and win and dine the Rich and the Mighty to sell his big dirty deals."
Hours later, Sudha had retired, only keep puzzling over some missing link, which seemed to be just there, out of her reach...
What sort of a guy was this ? she thought. his whole life spent with another's wife, helping her to entertain her husband's guest. And then, but what's the deal, always hiding, never able to acknowledge each other out in the open ? Why ?
The riddle wouldn't let her sleep...who, who, who...?
She recounted all that Suvarna had told her .... her husband's rejection, the despair, coming out of it in the arms of a lover who moved in and out of her house and apartments without evoking any suspicion for months on end ! How could that be possible even given the large establishment. The mystery was curdling her brains, repelling sleep.
After sometime, she heard her brother-in-law mount the stairs, firm hard footfalls marked his progress down the landing to a door down the corridor which opened and then clicked smartly shut.
After a longish spell came the muffled murmurs as her sister came upstairs, no doubt holding her father-in-law's arm after their constitutional walk in the open.
Another door opened and clicked shut, next door.
A little later, unrest made Sudha throw back her covers.
Who could it be, WHO?
Some pacing about her room later, she tapped softly at Suvarna"s door, determined to talk to her, scratch it out of her....no response; she let herself in softly " are you awake, Sue ?"
A single-shaded light cast its pale circle on the mirror through the open door of the dressing room.
And the images in the mirror transfixed the intruder.
Sudha turned her face about to the open connecting door between the suites and the bed beyond. Tiptoeing silently forward, the eavesdropper strained to listen in.
Well said, Sue, old love did not just go away or die out, its fragrance lingered on.
She couldn't catch a word, but the tender look on her sister's face, the gentle touch of her hand on the weathered cheek below it and the adoration in the eyes of the man were words enough.