Prose: Meghna Pant
Tanya is regretting her promise to take Maneesh to Kaizad’s house.
“You promised,’ Maneesh says when she complains that Kaizad’s house is a forty-five minute drive, one hour with traffic, and what is she supposed to do for the two hours that Maneesh wants to stay? “*You* promised,” Maneesh says, his nose flaring as it does when he’s become impervious to reason.
To be fair, she had promised Maneesh. Promised him in the school playground after he’d won the 100-meter race, and Kaizad’s mother had sat in a yellow dress and an easy smile, under the yellow sun, inviting Maneesh to play on Kaizad’s new Sony PlayStation next Friday.
Tanya had been lured into a promise that required no immediacy of action, just an exchange of possibilities sometime in the future. Plus, perhaps more importantly, Tanya had liked Kaizad’s mother (Daisy? Delnaz? What was her name?), because she didn’t carry that awful expression of vigilance and terror – like the other mothers in Maneesh’s school – as if preparing for a surprise test. And, for the first time since coming to India, Tanya had seen Maneesh relax, teaching his t-bone greeting to Kaizad, the only kid in school who’d looked past Maneesh’s American accent and dust allergies to lock him elbow to hand, giggling. So she’d said yes to Kaizad’s mother, as impulsively as she’d said yes to marrying “Aditya from New York”, as frivolously as she’d agreed to move from New York to Mumbai because Aditya wanted to be with his ailing mother, as thoughtlessly as she’d given up a career in journalism. Stop and start. Start and stop. So many lifetimes in one life, none connected to the other, her patchiness being the only common denominator.
“Keep the change,” she finds herself telling the surprised taxi driver, who isn’t used to the American style of zealous tipping. Tanya could have used one of their two cars wasting in the building’s parking but the car with the driver is on standby in case her mother-in-law, who is suffering from an unidentified ailment everyone’s calling ‘old age’, takes a turn for the worse, and driving herself is out of the question. Tanya has a license, for which Aditya paid a bribe, but when she first went on Mumbai’s tiny roads, she found that she could have used the driving lessons. For it was all too much. Cheek-to-jowl cars were backed up for hours as drivers stepped out to drink cutting chai, and the city exploded on to the road with cows, carts, dogs, people cutting her off as though she was the pedestrian. Dissuaded, she put away her license in that dusty corner of her life where so many of her unused skills lay.
Tanya grabs Maneesh’s wrist – which has started to fit around her fist since his grandmother forbids meat to be cooked in the house – and looks around the Parsi colony for Kaizad’s apartment. The green block lettering of Kamat restaurant comes into focus and, as instructed, she turns opposite it to find Kaizad’s three-storied building.
But it’s not Kaizad’s yellow-dress mother waving to them from the first floor. Standing on a long verandah, its wooden frame as black as the street it overlooks, and partially hidden behind the clothesline, is a man. A short squatty man with greased hair falling over his forehead. He is wearing a white ganji and denim shorts, really short shorts, held up by a pointless belt. She finds it ridiculous, this man’s abundant hair peeking out from below his clothes as if he’s worn hair to cover his clothes. His face is foggy against the sun but she can make out fair skin, fairer than most here, and sharp features, though that could be the heat shining off his face. It is May.
She stands like this, with Maneesh in her hand, staring at the man holding Kaizad’s hand – all looking like paper doll cutouts joined at the hand – when Kaizad yells *Maneesh! *Tanya clamps down on Maneesh’s hand and walks up the wooden stairway of the building, avoiding the dead roaches, the pile of dust swept into the corners, holding on to the balustrade with her other hand in case the stairway that’s creaking underfoot gives way.
Kaizad is outside the door, waving a green plastic sword toward his house, like the aircraft runway men with orange sticks guiding planes in the right direction. Tanya looks from the edge of the sword that is rounded and blunt, safe for her son to play with, into the house that is cluttered, as was obvious even from the street, but surprisingly clean, airy and bright. She pushes Maneesh ahead of her so she can study this place. Her eyes rest on dot-shaped fish drawn with chalk powder on the threshold and a string of dried mango-leaves and marigold hanging from the door.
The man with Kaizad steps forward. He is holding a lit cigarette and pushes his other hand forward, “Hi, Khudayaad. I’m Kaizu’s Dad, Porus.”
He says this with his eyes half-squinted, as though he’s looking at the sun and not her. Tanya wishes that she had worn the maroon lipstick lost somewhere in her purse, and put on something more appealing than a tie-dye kurta and her old khaki pants.
He continues, “Dinaz says sorry, she can’t be here. Her boyfriend is down with food poisoning or something, so she called me to baby-sit.”
So her name is Dinaz, she’s divorced, has a boyfriend, and apparently civil relations with her ex-husband. Tanya adds all this like soiled patches to the clean yellow dress of the woman with the easy smile. In India, unlike America, this family situation feels inappropriate, unreal, scandalous, the stuff you read about in gossip magazines. She looks worriedly at Maneesh to see if he’s overheard, but he’s distracted, swinging his arms in an apparent sword-fight with Kaizad.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you,” she says, her voice firm and even to indicate that other people’s private affairs are not her business. “Thanks for having Maneesh over.”
The man scratches his right cheek, and she hears a dry grating sound as if his skin is chalkboard. He needs to shave.
“It was Kaizu’s idea,” he mumbles.
“Maneesh, have you wished Uncle?” Tanya says, her voice strict to tell Uncle that she has raised her child well.
Without looking back at his mother, Maneesh yells, “Hello, Uncle.”
“Maneesh!” Tanya says.
Maneesh drops his arms and grudgingly walks up to Porus. He extends his hand and says in a voice that sounds monogrammed, “Namaste, Uncle. Thank you for letting me come here and play with Kaizad.” He turns to Kaizad, eyeing him like candy.
Porus exhales a long puff of smoke from his lips, as if pushing Maneesh away with the sheer force of his lungs. “Why don’t you go to Kaizu’s room and play?”
Maneesh looks at his mother for further approval, and because she wants to delay the man he’ll eventually become, not caring for her opinion, she quickly nods her head. Kaizad grabs Maneesh’s hand and pulls him out of sight. Tanya hears them shut the door to some room firmly behind them.
She is alone with a man.
She doesn’t remember the last time she was alone with a man, other than her husband, and that too a divorced man with a deep voice and sharp-cut features, who on closer observation is muscled, not stout. She panics. What will her mother-in-law say when she finds out? Or Aditya? And what is she supposed to talk to Porus about till Maneesh’s play date ends? How is she supposed to behave so that she is interesting without leading him on?
She is in the verandah now, shifting awkwardly on her feet, when Porus asks, “What would you like to drink? Beer? Wine?”
What a surprise! Since arriving here two months ago, she’s only been offered tea, lemon juice and coconut water by the people she’s visited, though all of them are Aditya’s relatives. And there is no alcohol, not even beer, at their home since Aditya has determined that his mother is too frail to find out that he, and worse his wife, drink.
“We have Foster’s, Kingfisher, and yes, Bacardi Breezer. Blueberry flavor, since Tanya only drinks that, Mazda knows why,” he continues, in a monotonous voice. “I can make Mojito if you like, we have the mix here somewhere.”
It strikes Tanya that there are no servants about, unlike all the other homes she’s been to, where they’ve miraculously appeared whenever the host asks what she wants.
Has Porus sent the servants away on purpose?
“I’ll have cold water for now, thank you,” she says.
She follows him into the living room muddled with antique furniture, most chipped and broken. A dark brown rocking chair is moving – that’s where Porus must have sat before they entered – and there is a mosaic table at the center of the room that is too tall to be a coffee table. Porus walks to a large wooden cabinet with glass panels, inside which is white chinaware and a row of miniature ceramic doves. He removes two glasses and sets them next to a desktop computer with missing keys, gray with age.
Tanya catches a whiff of sandalwood and says, “What a lovely aroma.”
Porus doesn’t turn around but points to a long narrow stool covered with a red velvet cloth on top of which is a small fire vase filled with sandalwood and frankincense, “It’s coming from the sukadh-loban. Dinu says she lights it for religious purposes but – don’t tell her I said this – she only does it when I’m around, old habit, so I think it’s to mask my cigarette smell from Kaizu.”
Porus walks ahead to a room where everything is covered with white cotton cloth. Tanya makes out the shape of a large dining table with its wooden legs peaking out from underneath the carelessly thrown sheet, eight broad chairs for a large family, some cabinets which she imagines no one puts food in, and a giant white Godrej refrigerator with a lumpy steel handle which Porus pulls with a grunt.
“Looks like there’s no cold water,” Porus says, and when Tanya peers into the fridge she sees rows of beer cans, more variety than the Foster’s and Kingfisher he offered, as well as some drink mixes and curdled milk in an Amul plastic pack. What did they feed Kaizad?
“The boys? Maybe they’ll like to eat something?” she says, tentatively.
“Oh, don’t worry about them. Dinu left raspberry cola and bhakra for them in Kaizu’s room.” He turns to her and says, “There’s some papeto kaleji if * you’re* hungry.”
She doesn’t know what that is and it must show on her face because he explains, “It’s a masala potato liver dish, a Parsi specialty, very tasty.”
She gags. She misses meat, more now that she can’t have it at home, but liver is something that as a Hindu she’s never thought to eat. So when Porus brings forward a stacked away steel dish to reveal gray-blackish meat with a fried egg on top, she says “No!” rather loudly.
“Fine,” he says, his eyes crossed, taken aback. “There’s some tamota ma bhejo, brain tomato dish too, but I guess you won’t like that either. Your loss.”
With his bare fingers he picks a piece from the dish and chews it with his eyes closed.
The sight of the gray meat reminds Tanya of the time Aditya and she went to see the one-horned Indian rhino. It was a period before Maneesh was born, when returning to India was a remote, if not impossible, prospect and she had therefore wanted to see more of it. They visited the East-Indian towns of Darjeeling, Gangtok, Guwahati, all tea estates, yaks, rice-millet drinks, Nepalese-Tibetan-Hindi dialect, and at the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, they made an impulsive stopover at the famous Rhino Sanctuary of Jaldapara. It was their first elephant safari and they woke up at five in the morning, climbed the steps of an elephant mount, took their seats on a set of precarious cushions, and hung on to the lone bar that stopped them from toppling off Madhubala, their elephant.
It didn’t matter for it was a magical trip, the dark of dawn silencing the lodge, the Malangi river gurgling in the far distance, groggy eyes waking up to a still owl on a bare branch, the dance of a peacock’s feathers, a pair of bison tongues licking a salt mound. Tanya sat back-to-back with Aditya, facing the rear end, seeing everything a moment after him. Hypnotized, they dared not break the silence even when the Bengal florican screeched and the jungle fowl and partridges scampered beneath their feet. The only human sound was that of the mahout, *Hrrr*, goading Madhubala whenever there was a turn or small slope in the forest ground.
Knowing that nothing could go wrong in Madhubala’s world, Tanya let go of the bar. Her feet scraped the tall grass, leaves gently brushing her face, her outstretched hands mingling with the dewy forest breeze, the enchantment continuing. About an hour later, when the sun began to break through the treetops, yellow rays pushing the darkness into an infinite sky, Aditya complained to the mahout, “Why haven’t we seen a rhino yet?”
Tanya tittered. It was so typical of Aditya to break idyllic dreams and thrust them into the humidity of daily disappointments.
They moved on, catching a glimpse of a spotted deer, some wild pigs and another bison, when Tanya saw it: a three-thousand-kilo hulk of a rhino with a black nasal horn curving back from its nose, a male she would later learn on Google. Camouflaged with a gray rock, it stood still amidst the elephant grass, and for a moment Tanya thought she must be mistaken. Then it blinked and she saw its brush-tail swing momentarily in the air, swishing away horse flies. She didn’t call out to Aditya or the mahout whose sights were set fixedly ahead, but looked past the giant’s thick gray-brown skin, pink near the chunky skin folds, its wart-like bumps, its body divided by clean-cut lines as if it wearing an armor, and directly into it’s eyes. And though she’d heard that a rhino’s eyesight was weak, it looked right back at her, not blinking its small eyelashes, not moving, staring as if expecting her.They stayed like that for a while, orange rays reaching both of them, extending through the shreds of torn sky. Tanya was convinced that the rhino had a message to deliver, something she could translate and convey to the world, but she never figured out what, since too soon Madhubala took a turn and the rhino was gone.
“Tanya?” Porus is saying. “There’s no cold water. Do you want something else to drink?”
Tanya stops staring at the fridge handle and turns to Porus. Since her afternoons follow the worn-out path of
eat-lunch-clean-dishes-serve-mother-in-law-watch-TV-prepare-Maneesh’s-snack-clean-Maneesh’s-school-bag-go-over-Maneesh’s-homework-prepare-Aditya’s-tea, she’s seized with a sudden recklessness.
“I’ll have a Breezer. Yes, why not?”
“That’s the spirit,” Porus says.
“And I’d love to try that liver. It looks great.”
Porus smiles at her for the first time since they’ve met. She blushes, as if she’s Maneesh’s age and has got a nod from the popular kid in class.
Porus hands her a bowl containing the meat. She takes a bite and says, “Delicious.”
“Next time I’ll take you to Jimmy Boy for mind-blowing dhansak,” he says, pecking his forefingers. His eyes crinkle at the edges with the force of his smile.
Is he asking her out on a date?
She would say yes if her life rewound eleven years back, when she’d been another person, a passionate journalism student at JNU, staging protests against corruption, nuclear testing and train accidents, or smoking and watching movies with the advertising crowd who rested their brain cells before the coup of creativity hit them in the evenings. She graduated top of her class and was hired as a daily news correspondent by a television station in Delhi. Her mind was prepared for the grueling work, the fourteen-hour days and six-day weeks, but soon after her body gave way and she fell ill, not recovering for two months by which time she’d been replaced, as had her dreams. Quickly, her mother found “Aditya from New York” – a decent NRI boy whose parents had a flat in Khar, almost South Mumbai, three times more expensive than their Gurgaon Delhi flat. At twenty-three she moved to America, had Maneesh two years later, and gave up any ambition except to raise her son well.
Porus passes her an open bottle of Bacardi Breezer – blueberry flavor.
What she’s doing is childish, drinking alone with a strange man in a strange house in the middle of the day, eating meat, forbidden meat.
What will Maneesh say if he comes outside? What will he tell his father, who he’s trying to ape, or his grandmother, whose physical deterioration confuses him?
It’s too late. She takes a long thirsty sip. A sharp shooting pain gathers in a tooth and rises straight to her brain.
Why is this happening to her? Is she being punished for her misdemeanor?
Then she remembers. This pain is from her filling that fell out three weeks ago, which she hasn’t got fixed because there are so many other things about herself that she has to fix first. Recently, she’s noticed three to four, actually fourteen, white strands of hair on her scalp, and she’s sure there are more that she can’t see but others can. She needs to dye her hair. Then, she has to dump her drab kurta-jeans and buy fashionable new dresses and skirts and low-tops showing cleavage, to align herself with mothers like Dinaz and distance herself from the lumpy salwar-kameez-sari mothers. After that, she has to ditch the Dr. Scholl’s she’s been wearing for her post-pregnancy back pain and put on open-toe sandals with brightly painted nails. Tanya has made appointments with the parlor near her building to have her nails scrubbed, polished, painted red, but then Sunday becomes Wednesday and she forgets her appointment till its Friday. She will go tomorrow.
Porus is still smiling at her and she smiles back. He’s got strong white teeth, not yellowing like hers; she must ask him what toothpaste he uses. She follows him back to the living room where he switches on a small TV with wires popping out of it in a jumble. She sits comfortably on a sofa with cotton peaking out from under it, praising her luck. Now she can talk, knowing that any gaps in conversation will be fixed by the sound on the TV, a cricket match between a team in blue and one in black, though all the players look Indian. Why are Indian players playing against each other? She doesn’t ask Porus, not wanting him to know that she hasn’t watched cricket in more than a decade.
Still, she has to say something, so she inquires, “Why is everything in the dining room covered in cloth?”
Porus, who has spread his legs on a brown beanbag, below which is an ashtray filled with at least twenty cigarette stubs, lights another cigarette and says, “This is Dinu’s Bapaiji and Mamaiji’s flat. They’re dead now, and her Uncle is letting her live here after we – uhm – you know. Anyway, she hates this stuff: antique clock, antique chair, antique this, antique that. She’s a modern girl, you know, but that nalayak Uncle* *is not allowing her to renovate. So this is her compromise, keep all the furniture but don’t look at it. Still, she has to listen to him, to all of them, being a single mother, with a young son, faltu musician father. Things get tight around here, you must have noticed?”
Tanya takes a sip while thinking of an appropriate reply, not sure whether she’s supposed to notice. She nods, a half-half, not a yes, not a no, and says, “Families,” the way she’s heard men at parties say ‘Women’. As if no one understands them but have to suffer them anyway.
“Yeah,” he says flippantly. “Dinu told me you moved here after ten years in New York. Why the hell would you move *here*?”
“My mother-in-law has not been well since my father-in-law died. So we moved to take care of her,” she replies, hoping her ensuing tired laugh doesn’t betray her regret at this decision.
“The other woman, huh?” he says, and chuckles. He is mocking her decision.
When she repeats this excuse to Aditya’s relatives they too disapprove, but for different reasons, saying that Aditya and she should have come * immediately* after Aditya’s father died, not waited for five months till his mother developed health problems. Then they ask Tanya why she didn’t have a second child while she still could? Tanya doesn’t explain the long frustrating years they’ve spent trying for a second child, but replies that she has two kids now, Maneesh and her mother-in-law, so why worry? Aditya allows her this one snide joke, his punishment for uprooting her life. Then Aditya’s relatives complain that Maneesh is too dark, why didn’t she apply turmeric flour paste on him when he was born?
“The other woman? My husband has never cheated on me,” she says firmly, hoping it to be true.
“Look, I’m a typical bawa so don’t mind my honesty, but it sounds like that husband of yours is more focused on his mother than on you. When you emotionally belong to someone other than your spouse, that’s cheating right? It’s cheating of another kind, but still cheating, no?”
Though she’s never seen it as cheating, Porus has a point. Aditya has been moping around since his father died, claiming that his mother is the only reason he’s not yet an orphan. And his mother is no less, preening for his attention, quiet through most of the day, and zealously coughing, complaining of mysterious aches and pains the minute Aditya comes home from work. Tanya doesn’t say a thing. Her parents are long gone and she has no siblings. Aditya and Maneesh are her only family, and being a good wife and mother are her only responsibilities. If she fails in that, what will she have to show for her unfulfilled life?
Suddenly Porus leans over and brushes her thighs. She startles and glares at him, but his eyes are fixed on the TV. She leans back as he absently fumbles around the sofa, quickly glances over and snatches a tissue from the tissue box on the next seat. There is a nonchalance about the whole act, but Tanya is no fool to believe it. She sits upright on her seat and takes a long hard sip of her drink.
There’s a movement to her right; Maneesh is standing at the doorway.
Tanya stands up erect.
What has he seen? What has he understood? How can she explain it all away?
“Yes, beta?” she says evenly, shaking all guilt out of her voice.
Maneesh looks at her and says in his eight-year-old innocent voice, “I have to go.”
Tanya murmurs a small prayer, thankful that her son is still blind to her mistakes. She glances at Porus, who is pretending to be wholly immersed in the match, and asks Maneesh, “Number one or number two?”
He holds up one finger.
She clears her throat and over the sound of the TV asks Porus where the washroom is. She follows his instructions: taking the first right, straight and then left, till she reaches two toilets – one Western style and one Indian style – separated by a single sink. She thrusts Maneesh into the squat one, as there’s no toilet paper in the other, and when he comes out she holds down the long flush chain till a trickle of water discharges.
Maneesh immediately runs back to Kaizad’s room, wherever it is, and Tanya slowly walks toward the living room. There is an ad on TV, so Porus turns to her with his full attention, but doesn’t say anything. Tanya knows he is not going to play the host game, fill the space between them with pleasantries, political or economic debates, ask dutiful questions driven by century-ago expectations. She takes her place in the sofa, not quite sure what to say. But the drink has made her light-headed so she asks, “Why did Dinaz and you separate?” America has taught her to be politically correct, so she doesn’t use the word ‘divorce’.
He empties a cigarette from a carton and lights it up. Taking a puff he laughs through clenched teeth, “I cheated on her.” He continues speaking as if from some deep thought, “Dinu told me, tells me, that I’m such a cliché, cheating on her with her best friend. But she’s forgiven both of us, of course, she’s understanding that way. People move on. In fact, just last night we were out celebrating the birthday of her best friend – yes, still her best friend.”
From Kaizad’s room there is a thud.
Tanya gets up and shouts, “Are you boys ok?”
“Yes, Aunty,” says Kaizad.
“Maneesh? Are you ok?” she asks.
“Yes, Maa,” he says, and she remembers all the times she’s been afraid to let go of her son’s hand in the fear that he’ll step off the curb, fall off the bed, tumble down the stairs, disappear one day. He never has. He’s still here. Yet, once, when Tanya had looked away for just five seconds, he’d fallen off a spinning merry-go-round. She watched him fly, his hands helpless in the air, his feet in a surprise backward tumble, everything moving in slow motion, her heart in her mouth. She ran to him, just as his head hit the ground, and gathered him in her arms, feeling his head, no bumps, running her fingers over his thin shoulders, his frail back, his hairless legs. “Are you ok? Are you ok? Are you ok?” she asked. He looked up at her, eyes unfocused, a weak smile. Still she asked, “Who am I?” and he, all of five, with utmost sincerity said, “Maa?”
Above the sound of the videogame from Kaizad’s room, comes the sound of laughter.
“Our sons seem to be getting along,” Porus says.
“Yes they are,” she quickly agrees.
Maybe it’s the alcohol, Porus’s openness with her, Tanya’s betrayed life, this modern couple’s unfulfilled love, her child’s laugh from the other room, this old house that smells of mothballs and newspaper, but something that’s been holding Tanya’s life tightly into place since seeing the rhino, some sort of noose or rope, comes undone. She’s breathing again.
She doesn’t know why she has never told anyone about the rhino, not Aditya, not the mahout who tried to make them stay another night (*Sir, tomorrow pukka you will see the rhino)*,* *not her new friends in America who wanted to know all about her little Indian adventure, not even her son whom she’s promised never to lie to. All she knows is that this is the only part of her life that she can keep to herself, no witnesses, no rendition, her treasure to carry alone.
“Can I tell you something?” Porus leans over and asks. His breath smells of tobacco mixed with the fizzy sourness of beer. This bold imperfect stranger with straight white teeth and a hooked nose emboldens Tanya’s imagination. If he tells her that he finds her attractive, wants to kiss her, sleep with her, hug her, Tanya isn’t sure that she’ll say no. Just the thought of it is making her reckless, a feeling creeping out from behind all other feelings, scared to show itself after its prolonged dormancy. She’s daydreamed about a similar scenario many times, in a different place with an unknown face, everything blurry save for her response, a righteous pious slap, loud enough to hide her soaring vanity. She doesn’t know what she’ll do now, but she knows that she will not slap Porus. If she yields, she warns herself not to feel guilty; it will be her prize for the stack of stoicism she’s build around herself for the sake of her marriage and her child.
“I probably shouldn’t,” Porus adds and leans back. Now she really wants to know.
She looks at him coyly, chin slightly bent, lips curved in an alluring smile, eyes soft, inviting intimacy, a look she used on so many admirers in college, earning her the nickname ‘Flurt’, practice gone to waste on Aditya after the first few months of marriage; it came back so easily.
“Come on, Porus. I won’t tell anyone.”
“I know you won’t. You’ve lived in the great U.S.A. Our silly lives must seem trivial to you.” If only he knew. “But you can’t tell anyone.”
“I won’t,” she says, and knows she will not.
“Well, it’s not really my secret, its Dinu’s too.” He plays nervously with his belt buckle. “You see, we are not married. I mean we were never married, everyone just assumes we were because of Kaizu. We were dating in college, and our parents tried to arrange a wedding, especially after she became pregnant, but somehow it didn’t happen. So, obviously we are not divorced either, but we go around pretending we are because that’s better than giving our relationship and our child no name. But you can’t tell anyone. No one knows this, not even Kaizu.”
Tanya is disappointed; so Porus is not attracted to her and doesn’t want to take advantage of this smoke-filled hazy room where no one will know what conspired between two slightly drunk adults. What’s worse is how adult Dinaz and his unconventional life seems, an unmarried couple parenting a child, moving past betrayal, befriending each other’s lovers, while her life has passed from her parents to a husband to a son to a mother-in-law, never her own, no momentary lapse seeping into the mistake-proof wall of conformity. It’s not their life that is silly, as Porus believes, but hers, because this wall has allowed her to be a coward, sheltering her real motives.* *She hasn’t moved to India to be a good wife but to show Maneesh the sacrifices that a man must make for his mother. For one day he will be a man, she will be old, he will have another woman in his life, and if Tanya needs him, and she *will* need him, he will remember what she had done for his father, what a son does for his ailing mother, what a wife does for a husband, and he will come.
Tanya’s life stands in front of her in a straight line: her mother-in-law will die, Aditya will be promoted, they will buy a bigger apartment in a building with a pool, Maneesh will go back to the US for college, he will marry a girl of his choice, Tanya will become a grandmother, Aditya – seven years her senior – will die, Maneesh will come to take care of her, she will die, he will move to a bigger apartment in a building with a pool and a Jacuzzi.
This cannot be my life, Tanya thinks. That straight line standing cockily before her needs to be smudged. She has to stop being a coward and make mistakes, openly. She leans forward, toward Porus. She will kiss him. He will be surprised, might push her away, but he’s a man, unmarried, unmoored, free to be with anyone, the mother of his child with another man. He will yield, kiss her back and after that she will let him do what he wants to her. She doesn’t care if anyone sees or knows anymore.
She licks her lips, thrusts out her chest and moves her leg to face him. There’s a crash. Her foot has hit the Bacardi Breezer bottle and its fizzy liquid is spilling all over the cream tiles, a large ugly blue blot spreading in the white rug underneath her foot.
What a klutz I am, she thinks, always doing this, always destroying things.
“I am so sorry. I didn’t realize the bottle was near my foot,” she says frantically, reaching over to the tissue box on the sofa. It’s empty. She digs her hands into her purse for some Kleenex and finds three whole packets.
“Its ok,’ Porus murmurs, getting up like a pole-vaulter, with one leg straight up and the other tracing the first leg’s course. “It’s not your fault that this place doesn’t have a coffee table.”
“I’ve ruined it, I’ve ruined it all,” she says, bending over the rug, dabbing furiously, the tissues filling up with her guilt.
Porus is beside her, their faces centimeters apart. He says, “Relax, dude.”
She doesn’t stop dabbing, reaching with her other hand for another packet of Kleenex.
“Relax!” he says sternly, as if talking to his son. He places one hand over her hand, stopping her from throwing tissues like empty promises. With his other hand he grabs her chin and turns her face toward him. She sees his lips moving; pink save for the dark edges courtesy his smoking. “Baap re! Relax, Tanya! It’s an old rug. Nothing to worry about. Dinu was going to throw it away, anyway.”
He looks into her eyes with an intensity that makes Tanya understand why Dinaz stayed with him with or without marriage. She feels his passion, his power, his longing. He is going to kiss her now. There isn’t a better moment, a better opportunity. She shuts her eyes in anticipation, squeezing all other thoughts out of her head so she can enjoy the delight she’s already savoring.
She flutters her eyes open, confused, and searches for him. He is standing up, the drink back in his hand, ice clinking in the glass, looking at the TV. The players in black are running toward each other, their hands in the air, clapping, victorious, alive.
Without turning to her Porus says, “Tanya, I rigorously follow the saying – you must know it – don’t eat from a used plate.”
Tanya startles. Is she nothing more than a used plate to Porus, her appeal as a woman reduced because she’s married and hence ‘used’ by another man?
Porus bends down, carelessly rolls the rug and tosses it in a corner, discarded.
He is referring to the rug as the ‘used plate’, Tanya realizes. Of course.
But she gets up and straightens herself. There are tears edging her eyes. She turns toward Kaizad’s room and screams, “Maneesh! Maneesh! We are leaving. Come out. Now.”
Now?” Maneesh shouts.
“No way,” she hears Kaizad say, his voice cracking, as if on the verge of its adolescence, shrill like a girl.
“*Etlo badlai gayoch?*” Porus says, turning towards her with a look of helpless confusion. “Why are you leaving? You just came. The boys are having fun. I thought we were too.”
Tanya looks at Porus, sweet lovable Porus, the breaker of hearts, the mark of her misplaced intentions, her dying youth. She pats her hair back into place, picks up her big purse, and heads for the door, where she waits for Maneesh, alone.
How soon the sun had risen that day. How fast the elephant had walked. How quickly the rhino had gone out of sight, and become a part of the yellowing day, the green foliage; no sign that it had ever existed.