She wrapped the saree carefully around her, making sure that the pleats fell together in tandem, not one shorter or longer than the other. The pallu was the last fold of the saree, and with a graceful swish, it was over her left shoulder, falling at exactly the point she needed, just below her knee. With a self satisfied pirouette, she flicked her hair back and examined her face. Still no lines. She was lucky to have been blessed with her mother’s beautiful Asian complexion, and at forty five, prided herself on looking at least ten years younger.
“Diksha…how much longer?”, called out Ajay. Twenty four years, and he still didn’t understand the pleasure that she took in the ceremony of dressing up. Shringar, they had called it in India. She remembered being part of a dance ballet that explored the concept of Shringar. The preparation, the anticipation, the actual act of beautifying the self. The grace and the pulchritude.
“Ten minutes!”, she called back, sensing his irritation, and perversely enjoying it.
It was an anniversary party. Everyone was dressed to the nines. They still turned to look when she walked in. She enjoyed being the cynosure of all eyes. Always had.
“Burnt orange? I thought you said you were wearing green?”, Rina questioned her sourly.
“I changed my mind”
“Well, it does look good on you. Sushma won’t be pleased.”
The hostess was wearing burnt orange too, but despite her best efforts looked like a dowdy partridge masquerading as a peacock.
“Sushma, how lovely you look!”, Diksha air kissed her, ensuring the photographer got her best angle. “Where is Lalit?”
“Oh, he’s sorting out last minute stuff. Your children didn’t come?”
“No, Aria has her exams prep, and Akash..you know boys…”
With a shrug, she moved away to say hello to the other wives. They were all polite. They always were. But they hated her. She had refused to grow old and frumpy like them. She enjoyed her liquor, and the company of men, and she had a husband who allowed her all these freedoms without censure.
She had always assumed that living in the US would mean taking these liberties for granted. Yet discovered to her dismay that the Indian community in Chicago was even more narrow minded, orthodox and conservative than the one she’d left behind in Delhi. In that stultifying environment, she’d had the choice of toeing the line or rebelling. She’d chosen the latter.
“There you are!”, he pinched her bottom discreetly.
“Lalit, stop it! It’s your anniversary party.”
“It’s also another anniversary”, he winked at her. She suppressed her grin, and thrust her glass at him. “Get me another whiskey, and go mingle. I don’t want to set tongues wagging.”
The evening passed, as it always did, in a haze of whiskey and tall tales. She stayed in the mens’ corner, provocatively dropping her pallu now and again to let them glimpse her cleavage. It never failed to amuse her.
Later that night, as she unwrapped the saree, she caught Ajay’s eyes in the mirror.
“You looked hot tonight.”
She stopped and waited.
“They wanted you so badly. I could see it in their eyes.”
She held her breath.
“You’re a whore! A fucking whore.”
With that, he turned his back on her and let out a little fart, before falling asleep almost immediately.
“This is The Bean, Mamu. A very famous sculpture by Anish Kapoor ”
“Too hot beta. Too hot. I need to sit down.”
Exasperated she sat down once again. At this rate they’d never get to see anything. She examined her uncle and aunt with fresh eyes. They really weren’t that old. Mid sixties wasn’t old, was it? Yet, there they were in their traditional attire, incongruously paired with sneakers and baseball caps, insisting on ten minute breaks every half hour. Why spend lakhs of Rupees, travel thousands of miles, and then want to sit indoors in air conditioning watching Indian television? It baffled her.
She loved Chicago. Her adopted city that had embraced her, taken her to it’s high rise bosom and laid her gently by the shores of it’s lake. She loved the extremes of its blistering Summers and its freezing Winters. Spring brought her hope, and Fall, a beautiful melancholy. She couldn’t imagine going back to the noise and pollution of India. She had little to return to as it was. Mamu Mami were her only living relatives, and she wanted to show off her city to them. Preen in its beauty, and bask in the worldliness it had bestowed upon her.
They were not making it easy.
“Can we have curry tonight beta?”, Mami looked at her hopefully. “That sushi has given me constipation”
The butter chicken had turned out well. Even if she thought so herself. It had been a while since she’d cooked Indian food. Yet memories of her mother’s instructions had risen to the surface like it was yesterday that she had been taught the nuances of masalas and tarkas.
Aria swung her legs back and forth, perched on the kitchen counter top.
“Who is coming to dinner again Mom?”
“Some friend of Mamu’s. No- actually, his friend’s son. He’s working in Chicago, and you know how these old bonds operate. His father must’ve said he needs to visit…”
“That’s why you’re cooking up a storm? Why not just order some pizza?”
“You know they don’t care for western food”
“And I don’t care for all this smelly Indian food!”
“Aria! Have some respect. They are like your grandparents…”
With a lazy shrug, Aria slid off.
“Happy cooking Mom. I’ll be out tonight.”
Aria had already left the kitchen. With a sigh, Diksha returned to peeling the cucumber. How obedient she had been at twenty. Her family had wanted her to go to a college near home. She had agreed. No riding in buses to the North Campus. No exciting freshers parties. No boyfriends. No late night soirees. God! She’d a had a boring youth. No wonder she was making up for it now.
Her thoughts circled back to Lalit. It was getting awkward now. He was getting sloppy, and the initial thrill had long since evaporated. She had to find a way to break it off before the crap hit the fan.
That evening she decided to dress casually. After all, she had to do all the running around. Despite Mami’s protestations, she wanted her to relax and enjoy the evening. She did enough in India. This was her vacation too, and she didn’t want her spending it in the kitchen making chapatis for their guest.
So it was a slightly sweaty and harried Diksha that answered the door to Rahul. Her eyes widened slightly at the sight of the good looking young man on her doorstep. She noted his response. A quick, surprised appraisal before bland politeness took its place.
She tried not to flirt. After all he was nearly twenty years younger. But her nature could not be denied. As the evening progressed, and the wine worked to loosen inhibitions, he leaned over to her.
“That was the best butter chicken I’ve eaten in years. Tell me the name of the restaurant, and I’ll promise you anything in return.”
In mock horror, she leaned back. “How dare you imply I had this delivered! I’ve been slaving over the stove all day….”
He laughed then, and stretched out his long legs. “Then I suppose I’ll have to promise myself to you, in return for the recipe”
She sensed Mami’s discomfiture, and avoided her eye. It was only harmless banter. Their generation was simply not used to it.
He trailed kisses down her back, stopping at just above the slope of her curvy derriere.
“You are incredibly sexy”, he whispered.
She laughed, and turned to face him. “Not too old then?”
“Like wine. Like a rare Bordeaux- full bodied, silky and luscious”
“And you are wasting time….Come on, we don’t have long….”
Lalit had been a pain to shake off. It had taken several weeks of avoiding his calls, and ignoring him at social gatherings for the message to finally penetrate. He still threw her perplexed, and slightly hurt looks whenever they came across one another. She studiously ignored him, focussing instead on the heady feeling of being desired and pursued.
Rahul had not been subtle. With the gusto of youth, he had made his ardor evident. From the thank you flowers to the cards that followed to the phone calls inviting her to coffee, he left no stone unturned in his pursuit of her. She found it exciting and unnerving. That she would succumb was more a matter of when rather than why.
His apartment had the feel of a bachelor pad- largely unused, and mostly neglected. He had wasted no time on preliminaries, and taken her on the couch, in the first of many lustful adventures. He was a masterful lover, making her body quiver to his command. The afterglow of their lovemaking would encase her in a golden hue, till their next rendezvous, and the next, and the next.
She didn’t want to examine her feelings too closely. She had been in other extramarital relationships. There was an understanding between her and Ajay. She didn’t question his activities, and he turned a blind eye to hers. This tacit accord had worked over the years. The children knew nothing, and to their friends, they were an ideal couple. Yet this time, she felt something in her changing. Rahul was the man she wished Ajay could be. Erudite and accomplished, with a strong sense of purpose, and a determination to succeed. Ajay, for all his money and business acumen, would never be as sophisticated as the young man who wooed her with such urgency.
“You’ll never believe this”, Rahul blew smoke rings towards the ceiling, as she lay dozing next to him. “Your uncle has been in touch with my dad….”
“And?”, she responded sleepily.
“They want me to meet your daughter”
“What?!”, she sat up startled.
“Your uncle seems to think we’d make a good match”
“But…but….Aria is only twenty! She’s far too young…..”
He looked at her and laughed.
“I think that may be the least of your worries”
All evening she agonised about what her uncle was conspiring to do. Ajay had just returned from Denver, and she brought it up with him.
“Yes, Mamu had sent me an email about it, and I said why not?”
“Why not? Ajay! Aria is so young. She hasn’t even completed her education.”
“She’s not the most academic of children anyway, and in our families we marry the girls off young. You were not much older when I married you.”
“She will never agree. She’s far too independent. Besides, what do we know about this Rahul anyway, huh?” Superstitiously she crossed her fingers.
“Well, his parents are visiting in June. I’ve asked your uncle to arrange a meeting. We can get to know the family, and introduce the children. I’ve heard he’s doing well. A hotshot lawyer in some big firm. Didn’t you say he was a nice chap too?”
Silently, she digested the news. June was two weeks away. This could be a complete disaster! Or maybe not. An idea took shape in her mind.
“You have to say no”, she insisted batting his hands away. She’d been trying to talk sense to him but he was intent on unbuttoning her top.
“Why?”, he finally leaned back with a sardonic grin.
“Because…because….”, she spluttered, “She’s only a child….and you and I….”
“Yes?”, he resumed removing her blouse. “You and I what?”
“We’re lovers!”, she spat out angrily, moving out of his reach. “It would be wrong….incestuous…”
“Les Liaisons Dangeureuses”, he commented with a wicked glint in his eyes.
“Be polite but firm. Say she’s too young. Say you want to concentrate on your career. It’ll blow over soon enough.”
“Alright. Alright. Now come on over here”
With a strange sense of foreboding, Diksha wore the most conservative of her salwar suits that evening. Aria had been oddly compliant in agreeing to meet Rahul. She had even deigned to dress in a somewhat sober fashion. Diksha couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride when she looked at her beautiful daughter. Aria had the same willowy loveliness that she had once possessed. But underneath it all was a fiery temperament, and an implacable will.
“Are you sure you’re okay with all this darling? You know there is no pressure. You can say no. You know that, right?”
“Oh mom! You worry too much”, Aria planted a swift kiss on her cheek and headed out.
On a scale of 1 to 10, it was an 11 in terms of disaster. Ajay and Rahul’s parents had gotten along like a house on fire, talking common friends, common schools and all the commonality that came from belonging to the same town many moons ago. Worse however was the look that she’d spotted in Rahul’s eyes when Aria walked in. An astonishment, and an awe in the face of her beauty. She’d suddenly felt very old, and had to retreat to the kitchen to compose herself.
When the last of the brandies had been consumed, and the last cigars smoked, it was lightly suggested that the young folk might want to get better acquainted. Aria had blushed, and Rahul had eagerly agreed. Diksha felt sick, and pleading a headache left Ajay to conclude the evening.
“Rahul, please pick up! You’ve been ignoring my calls long enough. Please!”
Once again, it went into voicemail.
All her pleadings with Aria had fallen on deaf ears. Aside of being smitten with her dashing young suitor, Aria saw this as an escape from the tedium of studies and jobs, and an entree into an exciting life of parties, and travel, and unencumbered sex. They were already discussing venues and dates. Diksha felt desperate and alone in her misery.
In a last ditch attempt, she waited on his stairwell, cornering him just as he was entering his apartment.
He flinched when he saw her, and then covered his reaction with a polite mask.
“Diksha, how nice to see you here. How are you? Long time, hey?”
“Don’t fob me off with this crap!”, she spat.
He ushered her in quickly, the mask dropping just as fast.
“What the hell do you want?”
“You know what I want. I want you to leave Aria alone.”
“No can do”
“You don’t love her”
“You don’t know that”
“What sick game are you playing Rahul?”
He leaned back against the wall. “Tell me something Diksha. Would you leave your husband for me?”
“What? No! And you wouldn’t want that either. It was always a no strings attached thing.”
“Well then, how can you begrudge me the next best thing?”
“Rahul,I’m not sure what your agenda is, but please, I beg you…this is my child. She is only an innocent”
“Not from the way she performs dearest Mom in law to be. She could teach you a few tricks.”
Her palm connected with his face with such force that she nearly dislocated her arm. She ran out, her face flaming, her heart beating an uneven tattoo.
What do I do? What do I do?
Delhi was just as hot and polluted as she remembered. Aria wouldn’t stop coughing, making her point loudly. She’d refused to exchange a word with her on the flight. Not even the promise of a magnificent trousseau could puncture the grand sulk.
As she lay next to Mami, enjoying her afternoon siesta, the knot in her chest loosened somewhat. From the first moment that she had walked into the bougainvillaea covered bungalow, she had felt a sense of peace. Mamu, Mami, Home. Memories of her childhood had come rushing back. The childless couple that had taken her orphan self in, and given her love and opportunity and a future. How had it become so messed up? Why?
The Blind school she took Aria to on the pretext of buying candles, was only an excuse.
Years ago, Mamu had taken her there. In her selfish, teenage years she had often wallowed in self pity at being orphaned so young. He had made her sit in on classes, help with serving the food, and in his own exquisitely insightful manner, opened her eyes to her good fortune.
She watched Aria respond to the children around her in the same fashion. She was reticent at first, and then gradually she volunteered herself, playing, laughing, clapping and singing with the happy souls that surrounded her.
Diksha saw no handicap in anyone there, but herself.
“When were you going to tell her, beta?”, Mami enquired gently. “About Rahul and yourself?”
Diksha felt her mouth go slack. She had forgotten that this little old lady had all the powers of incision that a mother possessed.
“How can I, Mami? What will she think of me? She will never ever respect me again.”
“Diksha, is respect more important to you than honesty? This is your daughter’s future. You cannot let her make her decision without knowing all the facts.”
“Why did you let this go ahead Mami?”, Diksha questioned bitterly.
“I tried to dissuade your uncle. But he was adamant. He saw us forging a stronger bond with the Sharmas. He did not suspect what I suspected. Besides beta, isn’t it time you examined your own actions? Every action has a consequence. Isn’t it time you owned up to your responsibility?”
That night as the fan rotated lazily above them, Diksha tossed and turned, her mind in tumult. Everything hung in balance here. Her child’s happiness, her own marriage, her reputation, the future of her relationship with her family.
It was true that every action had a consequence. Her contradictory behaviour, her unhappy marriage, her wilfulness, her selfishness had long been leading to this day of reckoning. Yet, it was a consequence she could not shy away from any longer.
Impulsively she shook Aria awake. Groggy and irritated, she sat up.
“What is it Mom?”
“Aria, I have something to tell you”
©Poornima Manco 2017