Precipice

PRECIPICE

I didn’t love her then. She was just another girl. It was just another pub. Friday night, a few beers, a laugh, and maybe, if I got lucky, a fit bird.

She was fit alright! Her eyes a blue that beckoned you to drown in them. Her smile, a slow sensuous curve that promised complete annihilation if you did. Her body….that body….. One night turned into two…then a month…and before long we were, to all intents and purposes, a couple.

I was young, ambitious and successful. I drove a Ferrari. Lived in Chelsea. I had money and I was not afraid to flash it. Life had always smiled benignly on me.

She was young and ambitious too. I was her ticket out of slavery at Gatwick Airport. Ticket Desk work. Odd hours. Abuse from passengers. Could one blame her?

Two months in, and our baby growing in her belly, I’d bought the biggest diamond I could afford and gotten down on one knee. Did I love her then? I cannot honestly say that I did. Yet, it seemed the right thing to do. And the right time to do it.

The rays are filtering in through the shutters of this apartment in Marbella. They illuminate the paint peeling in the corners of the room. The colours are somewhat faded, adding to the general air of neglect and abandonment. I look at my face in the chipped mirror. The broken capillaries on my nose stand out in stark contrast to the pallor of my skin. I run my hands over my unshaven chin, wondering whether to bother or not. Then, with a shrug, I walk away.

The wedding was a grand affair. Business was booming and I could afford to be lavish. Her friends oohed and aahed over the arrangements. Her mother all but swooned. My mother stood by with suppressed fury. It was all very satisfying.

She looked lovely. Virginal white did become her. She looked pure…somehow….other worldly. Could I have loved her just a little bit then? Possibly. Very possibly.

In their room, the twins are beginning to stir. They sleep together, as closely knit at night, as they are in the day. One, so very blonde and sunny natured like his mother. The other, dark and tempestuous like me. I see their little faces in repose, their cheeks still plump in toddlerhood, their eyelashes, so thick, so lush as they flutter with unspoken dreams. I turn away, the lump in my throat so big that it threatens to engulf me.

Coffee. I need coffee. I shuffle towards the kitchen. There is no milk. Of course! I give myself a mental head slap. I drink the coffee black. It burns a hole in my stomach.

I was there for their birth. I held her hand as she writhed and screamed. I mopped her brow as she bit down on her lip. Never was her beauty more savage than then.Never was her rage at me more potent. Yet at the end of that long painful tunnel were these two exquisite, perfect creatures.Their tiny fingers curling around mine. Their personalities already beginning to shine through. One bawling for her feed. The other, patiently waiting his turn.

Mesmerised I had held them in my arms. So tiny and helpless that I’d vowed to protect them with every breath in my body. I’d vowed to be the father that my old man had never been.

The birth and subsequent child rearing had exhausted her. She was constantly tired. Tired and depressed. Her mother had stayed with us. Helped with the babies. Helped with the chores. When she’d had enough, I’d taken over. I’d cut back on work, and spent more time with her and the twins. I’d even shooed away my mother. I wanted to be there. It was our little family after all. Her, me, Joe and Amy. It had a special ring to it.

Life had been good then.(Or was hindsight lending it a golden glow?) Business was on a roll. Recession hadn’t hit yet. I was a devoted father. She was a ….well, when she’d finally risen out of her apathy, an adequate mother. I had been happy. The twins had thrived. All that while she had fretted about her body. About losing her looks, No amount of reassurance would work. Her preoccupation with something so transient, so unimportant, had confused me. Was having two healthy beautiful babies not enough?

Not for her. And so it had begun. Endless calorie counting. Membership at the new gym. Prohibitively expensive shoes and gear designed to make her fit in. Little by little, she had shrunk back to her pre pregnancy figure, diminishing, but not just in size for me. I tried to love her then. Tried to love the mother of my children.

It’s been a half hour since she left to buy milk and other sundry groceries. I do a little mental maths, as has become habit in the last year or so.Fifteen minutes to the store. A half hour there. Another fifteen back.  She will be back around 9:40.

Amy stands in the doorway,sucking her thumb,staring at me. Joe stumbles in, never far behind. I scoop them up. I sing to them as I make sure they go on the potty and brush their teeth. Breakfast is a biscuit each, till mum gets home. They draw silly sketches on the sheets of paper I give them. Fat crayons scribbling furiously away, their curls glinting in the sunshine, heads bowed in deep concentration.

I open the shutters and step out onto the balcony. It is a beautiful day, and the shabbiness of the apartment doesn’t spoil it in the least. In the horizon, I can see the sea front, throbbing and pulsating with a life of its own. I will some of that cool breeze our way. It is warm. Set to get hotter.

Can one ever pinpoint the exact moment that the rot sets in? Was it my failing business? Or my one too many beers? Was it the one and only time that I hit her? Who knows. Life became a strange stage set with us cast as actors who no longer knew their lines. Indignity piled upon yet more indignity. Debt mounted and confidence plummeted. Our rows grew louder,more strident. Friends, such as they were, melted away.Her family recoiled from the hopelessness of our situation. Mother smiled triumphantly and took a holiday abroad. I lashed out at everyone. Her mostly. At her extravagant ways. At her frivolous habits. At her.

She was angry at first. Then she withdrew. Grew distant. The more she stepped away, the more I wanted her back. I loved her now with a desperate desperate hunger.I clung to her with a juvenile delusion: My wife – for better or for worse. It’s only been worse with you, she’d sneered. And I could not dispute it. It was a demonic dance of desperation…with each of us alternately attacking or retreating. Still, we carried on pretending.  Pretence, the only glue holding us together.

How soon that was to end.

The clock watching started quite accidentally. A mate noticed how long she’d been gone to the gym. We’d gotten through the whole pack and the game was nearly over. I couldn’t face the pity in his eyes, and laughed it off. But the first stirrings of suspicion had coiled themselves around my mind.

Joe stubs his toe against a chair. His eyes, so like his mother’s, fill with tears and he comes running to me. I cuddle and soothe him, Amy cries in sympathy and tries to stroke his hair.

We huddle together, like battered souls. Something inside me breaks, and I start to weep as well. These great heaving sobs of their father momentarily stun the twins into silence.

Then, in fright, they join in once more. Our curious chorus reaching a cacophonous crescendo.

The signs were all there. The post coital glow.  The phone never out of her sight. The hastily erased texts.The long lunches. The moody silences. I just watched and hoped that she would get over this foolishness. That she would look at the innocent faces of her children and break it off. But there is none more selfish than a woman in lust.  I never confronted her.

There was no need to.She grew complacent, and I grew weary.Gradually, it dawned on her that I knew. Her contempt for me only increased.

This was our last ditch effort to make it work. This parody of a family vacation. This disengagement from our normal environs. This setting aside of our mutual disgust. Our willing hostages were our children. Pawns in a losing game.

We had been at it for a week. Trying to make this shambolic arrangement work. We’d tried to talk….sporadically emptying our thoughts but never quite baring our souls. We’d eaten meals by the sea front ,to all appearances a happy united family. We’d nursed glasses of wine by candlelight on the balcony, trying to recreate the infancy of our romance . We’d even made frantic, furious love, trying to rekindle the embers of a long forgotten intimacy. But, each could feel the other slipping away.

Why she even tried was beyond me. Hadn’t she mentioned divorce already? Divorce, with all its attendants, parading through our brief history together. Shredding all happy memories till they were nothing but scraps in the wastelands of our minds. Ripping apart the one good thing that came out it….our children….ripping them from my custody and placing them with a mother who cared….but only just. And never enough.

Why did she try? Perhaps she understood some of this. Perhaps she dreaded some of it too. Perhaps there was an iota of compassion in her. Perhaps.

Yet, last night, even that facade had come crumbling down. Her hurried whispered conversation on the balcony. Her closing with, ” I love you too ” had hammered in the final nail in the coffin of this union.

She’d met my eyes as she came in, and I had known. Could she have sensed the desolation in me?

Had there ever been love? This morning as I viewed her through the red haze of my hatred, I didn’t think so.

Another ten minutes or so, and she’ll be here. I tidy the little apartment as best as I can. Rinse my coffee cup and put it by the sink. The twins have calmed down and sit together, playing a little game surrounded by their toys. Heads close….all hurt forgotten. Joe helps his sister dress the doll and they place her in her little carry cot alternately cooing and giggling. The doll’s  vacant eyes stares at their cherubic faces, so full of life as she is bereft of it.

“Dada!!” Amy commands me to my knees to help prop her other toys in a circle. In some phantasmic toy kingdom, the doll reigns with utter supremacy. In a parallel world, Amy rules her men with equal authority.

I am dry eyed as I tear myself away from their play . The sun is rising in the sky, and the yearned for breeze is yet to reach us. I look over the parapet of the balcony. It is a long way down. Some distance away, I see a tiny figure dressed in blue, carrying home a bag loaded with groceries.

I pick up the twins. They come gladly, nestling in the familiar comfort of my arms.

I didn’t love her then. I don’t love her now. But I love them so much that I feel my heart will explode.

It is a long way down.

THE  END

This story (written some years ago) was inspired by news items on the spate of suicides by fathers who were losing custody battles. It made me wonder how desperate one had to be to take one’s children’s lives.

I read it now, and find it quite an awkward and unwieldy piece, but hopefully, the emotion and the desperation comes through.

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green

A wonderful review! Cannot wait to read this book.

Books, j'adore

This is the conversation that took place about ten minutes after I finished The Fault in Our Stars, when one of my closest friends came over for our weekly dinner:

Me: So I just finished this book, and I’m still having a lot of feelings. If I just randomly start crying…

Her: I love that book! I’ve read it twice. I’ve never cried harder for a book than I did for that one.

Me: So if I just freak out about it for the next hour…?

Her: That’s totally fine.

Thank God for friends who understand what it’s like to get uncomfortably over-invested in books.

Although, to be honest, if you read this book and didn’t cry, I’m not sure I could be friends with you. I mean, it’s a book about kids with cancer. And it’s a good book about kids with cancer, which means that John Green…

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Sweet Dreams

My daughters have watched me write, seen me stare into space searching for the right word, seen me struggle with writer’s block, but have never actually read anything I have written. This is because, all my stories have had themes or language that is a little too “adult” for their consumption.

Well, I remedied that with this particular story. The theme was chocolate, and knowing how fond they are of chocolate and baking, I combined the two and came up with this. Not my best effort, but they were fantastically happy to read one of “Mummy’s stories”! 😉

SWEET DREAMS

“Ah…this boy will be the death of me! How many times do I have to show you how to temper chocolate?”

Wolfgang grabbed the bowl from Lukas and started to stir the heated chocolate with a reverence he rarely showed anything else.

Lukas barely suppressed a yawn. He had been coerced into another apprenticeship by his overbearing father, when all he wanted to do was join the military and travel around Europe.

“Now, make sure this cools at exactly the right temperature. I want the gloss on it preserved, do you understand?”

“Yes master”, he replied hastily. It wouldn’t do to lose this position as well.

With a last glower, Wolfgang walked out to serve his customers at the front.

Lukas set about cooling the chocolate with minimal concentration. His mind was on the stories Thomas had regaled him with the last time he’d been home. Stories of the wine and the women and the beautiful landscapes of Provence. He’d felt so envious, so useless, so tied down, it made him angry even to think of it.

“Working hard again Lukas?”, Lena giggled behind him.

He blushed furiously in response.  Lena made most men nervous, but on him her effect was even more exaggerated. He knew she enjoyed teasing him in that flirtatious slant eyed way of hers. Her bosom seemed to spill out of her corseted top as she leaned over to look at his handiwork. He felt a sudden stirring as her hand brushed his as she gently took the bowl out of his hands.

“Not like this, you silly boy! Treat the chocolate as you would a lover. Pamper it, cajole it, make it do your bidding.”

He watched her in mild surprise. He had no idea she knew so much about chocolate. Her father certainly hadn’t taught her.  In fact, if Wolfgang saw her here, he would have a fit.

“Lena, I think you should leave. Your father won’t approve.”

She looked at him and scowled. “When has he ever approved of anything I do? No matter. You carry on ruining good chocolate.”

With a flounce of her skirts, she was gone. Just in time as well. Wolfgang returned with barely suppressed excitement emanating off his normally grouchy person.

“I have news. Big news! The Prince has several important guests visiting next fortnight. All the chefs in town have been assigned the task of creating the most delectable dessert. The winner will not just pocket a 1000 gulden, but might also oust the head chef off his lofty perch. Can you imagine, boy? The glory…the wealth…”, he sighed in happiness.

Then he looked at Lukas, and immediately frowned.

“No more fooling around, do you hear? This is serious business. We need to get started straight away. I must create a Torte so exquisite, so divinely delicious that it will leave all competitors trailing. Lukas, I could be famous, and rich, if I win. No, no, wipe that look off your face. If you help me create this cake, I will reward you handsomely. I may even give you your freedom…”

At this, Lukas’ ears perked up. He peered at Wolfgang uncertainly.

“Yes, you heard me. A nice little sum of money, and you can go on your travels. I will intercede with your father. But only,” he raised his hand, “if you work hard, and put your heart and soul into this.”

Lukas nodded vigorously, too overcome to say anything.

The next few days went by in a flurry of activity. Wolfgang was forever weighing or measuring or putting down notes in his little black book. Business carried on as usual, but both Lukas and Wolfgang toiled well above their normal hours of work.

A week away from the event though, Wolfgang did not appear in the kitchen. Lukas found him sitting by the fireplace shivering violently.

” I am sick, boy”, he announced despondently. The blanket slipped off his shoulders and he doubled up in pain. Lena came in with a hot broth, and spooned it into her father’s mouth.

“Lukas, shut the Konditorei today. Father is in no condition.”

“No”, he shouted, between spasms. “No…..you must carry on as normal. No one must know I am sick. We have to compete…I cannot fail now…”, he fell back into the chair exhausted.

Lukas and Lena exchanged looks.

“Yes, father. You rest. Lukas can work on the recipe, and I can assist him.”

At this Wolfgang scowled with such an intensity, he seemed almost well.

“I will not have my daughter parading around the kitchen, and flaunting herself before the customers….You….you stay out of his way….The boy will do it….he has my notes….”

Lukas backed out slowly, wondering what on earth he was going to do. Wolfgang was patently too unwell, and Lukas had neither the expertise nor the experience to create this decadent dessert.

The answer came soon enough. Lena entered the kitchen with her apron on, a determined look on her face.

“Before you say anything Lukas, you and I both know that you are incapable of realising my father’s ambition. Whereas I am.” She smiled slowly, “He need never know. You can take all the credit. I don’t mind.”

“Why do it then Lena? Your father will be livid if he finds out.”

“I’m doing it for love”, she quipped enigmatically. “Right then, where are father’s notes?”

She perused them quickly. Lukas couldn’t help but note how lovely she looked. She looked up at him, and laughed, ” No funny business Lukas. I am the boss’ daughter after all.”

Wolfgang had nothing on Lena though. She was a slave driver. Lukas had never felt quite as wrung out as he did at the end of the day. They had sifted the flour, they had melted the chocolate, they had separated the egg whites from the yolks, they had stirred, they had mixed, they had ground. On and on and on they’d gone. All this while he dealt with the customers at the shop front too.

At last they were ready to bake the torte.

“Can I ask you something Lena?”

” Hmmm?”

“There were no ground almonds in your father’s recipe?”

“I know”, she said quietly, turning her back on him, ” Come in early tomorrow to help me ice the torte”.

Finally it was done and it was exquisite. A three tiered torte beyond compare. The ganache glistened on the surfaces like polished mirror. Chocolate curlicues formed an arabesque pattern, swirling gently around the torte, seeming almost to embrace this otherworldly confection.

Lukas stood back, awed at what he’d helped create. Never in his life had he seen something quite so seductively tantalising.

“You are a genius!”, he exclaimed.

“No, you are the genius. Don’t forget. I have done nothing to help you.”

Wolfgang had been improving steadily, and starting to notice Lena’s absences.  On the day before the public unveiling of the competitors’ creations, he hobbled into the kitchen.

“Well? Where is it? What are you putting out in front of the Prince, in my name? I tell you now boy, if it is not good enough, we are not entering the competition. I do not want to lose the few loyal customers I have.”

Lukas led him to the torte. It stood in a cool corner of the kitchen, serenely magnificent. Wolfgang stopped in his tracks. He seemed to be lost for words. He circled the creation, leaned forward to sniff it, and then stood back quickly almost hitting his head on the low ceiling.

You did this….from my recipe?”

Lukas nodded.

“I see”, Wolfgang looked at him. “Well then, it seems I have underestimated your talents. I will be happy for this to be entered in my name.”

The square was buzzing with excitement the next day. The Prince was due to arrive any moment. Fanciful creations jostled with plainer counterparts while the chefs stood by, eying each other’s handiwork with envy or disdain. Wolfgang and Lukas stood quietly by their own torte. It didn’t scream or shout out in garish colours. It reached out in a muted whisper: to entice, to beguile.

The Prince stood quite enchanted. “May I?”, he asked, reaching for a fork. A look of pure ecstasy passed over his face as he tasted the first mouthful. A murmur ran through the crowd. Quite clearly, a winner had declared itself.

Lena lingered by the window, and as she saw a lone familiar figure making its way home, she rushed downstairs.

“Father?”, Lena ran up to Wolfgang concerned.”Where is Lukas? What happened? Why are you alone?”

“Lukas is gone”, he sat down heavily.

“Why? What…what happened?”

“Well, we won, of course.”

A bemused look came over his face and he beckoned her over. He held her hands in his own, turning them over, examining her long delicate fingers.

“Well, my beautiful talented girl. Are you ready to do it all over again?”

Lena smiled with pure happiness, and buried her face in her father’s chest.

THE END

“Write what you know” – Nathan Englander on Misunderstood Advice

Ahh! Some good advice here. 🙂

Ledia Runnels' "Writing Tips"

Nathan Englander (born 1970) is an American author. He wrote the short story collectionFor the Relief of Unbearable Urges, published by Alfred A. Knopf, in 1999.

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Gatsby-love thwarted (Spoilers)

Saw the movie ‘The Great Gatsby’ today. Baz Luhrmann kept it quite true to the book, while adding his unique flair to it.
But it got me thinking about who or what Gatsby stands for. Here is a man who has a vision of himself. He has come up the hard way and through dubious means acquired immense wealth. His driving force is his love for Daisy Buchanan.
In his vision, he gets the girl, and they live happily ever after in his enormous mansion. That this vision comes to naught is a moot point.
Had the vision come true, would he have been happy? Probably not. Even as he holds Daisy in his arms, he starts to realise that the green light on Daisy’s dock is starting to lose its significance.

That green light symbolises hope & ambition. Is there not something that each of us aspires to? What happens when we fulfil that ambition? Do we not find that the goal post has moved again?
Gatsby never fulfils his dream, and therefore he becomes a tragic character. Yet the true tragedy of life is,that sometimes holding your dream in your arms is also not enough.
Are human beings by our very nature condemned to certain unhappiness? Is there a little bit of Gatsby in all of us?

Short stories: Yay or Nay?

The Short story seems to be having a revival of sorts. I, for one, have always leaned towards this genre, simply because I am most comfortable with it. There is a certain beauty in brevity. I like the fact that something has gone on before this story unfolded, and something else will happen, after I have concluded it. Whatever that maybe is left to the reader’s imagination.

Despite, my love for it, I often wonder, if the short story is regarded as a poor second cousin to its grander rival, the novel? Invariably I get asked, “Are you working on a novel?” as though I need to move on, to graduate in a sense, to better things. The long and the short of it is: No. I love what I do, and intend to carry on for a while yet.

My question to you however is: What do you prefer?

Lajjo

This was a story that was fermenting in my mind for a very long time. Growing up in India, I was accustomed to having domestic help. My parents had taught me to treat them well. However, they existed on the periphery of my busy, and oh-so-important life. It is only after I left India, and became used to living independently, and fending for myself, that I started to view them as people. People who had lives, thoughts, hopes, feelings.

‘Lajjo’ was my attempt to give a voice to a hitherto ignored entity. I entered it in the Telegraph short story competition, and was, once again, chosen as a runner up. The judge. Louise Doughty, commented: Set in another country, India, Poormina Manco’s tale of a servant girl, ‘Lajjo’, shows us that the humiliations of domestic life, large and small, are universal.

She got the ‘m’ and ‘n’ muddled up in my name. That often happens, and I take it in my stride. 🙂

Hope you enjoy it.

LAJJO

6 am:  The cacophony of the birds is louder this morning. One jarring squawk crashes into another, building into a tuneless crescendo. I try to fall back to sleep to no avail. The room feels oppressive; the air stale. Spring is slowly giving way to Summer, and the heat is insidiously stretching its tentacles into the early morning hours. I grab my scarf from the floor, and wrap it around me, swinging my legs reluctantly off the bed.

She grunts and turns, farting softly in her sleep. The bile rises in my throat, my stomach heaves and I rush outside,retching quietly into a pretty flowerbed.

The early morning rays have lent the garden an ethereal glow. Dewdrops glisten on the leaves as I hastily nudge some soil onto my pale,watery vomit. The neighbour’s dog barks, immediately setting off all the locality strays. Their chorus has a lone soprano whose unearthly howl is interrupted by the elderly chowkidar, who bangs his stick impatiently and shouts “BE QUIET!!!”. Silence, then a howl as stick connects with backside….and the strays run helter skelter….

I breathe deeply. The air is fresher outside. The day’s smog is yet to penetrate the atmosphere. I look down at my work roughened hands. They shake slightly. I take another breath and try to focus.

I walk back into the room and find her eyes concentrated on me. Grey, rheumy,needy. She indicates she requires help getting up. I turn away,pretending not to notice. I walk to the kitchen and start preparing the first of the many cups of chai that will be demanded of me.

8 am: The flowers and the sweets are arriving in a steady stream. I feel like a marionette, strings jerking me everywhere.

“Lajjo come here”, “Lajjo put this away…not there, you silly girl…there!”, “Lajjo, make me another cup of tea”, “Lajjo,Lajjo,Lajjo” rings in my ears constantly.

“Yes memsahib”, I murmur dutifully, “Yes sahib”.

A courier whistles at me appreciatively. I have no time to even register his look. Sweat dampens my armpits, and I know I smell foul. This salwar kameez hasn’t been washed in a few days, and the synthetic fibres keep absorbing and retaining every odour they have ever come in contact with…from the lamb curry two nights ago, to the onion bhajis I’m frying right now.

10 am: The house guests are finally awake. They keep talking about something called jet lag. London is very far away they tell me. It took them 9 hours to get here. I shrug. It takes me twice as long to get to my village. And I still wake up at 5 am to milk the cows.

Priya, their little one,barely six, comes and cuddles with me. I hug her back. Her eyes are still full of sleep, and her ponytail is askew. She reminds me of Rani,my sister. I miss her desperately, and Priya’s affection is scant consolation at times.

Her sister walks in and eyes me warily. I cannot imagine what she has seen or guessed at, but she never lets her guard down. I overcompensate by hugging her with equal ferocity. She wriggles away.

” Mahi, are you hungry? Some biscuits with your milk? Would you like cornflakes?”

She nibbles at her toast, barely drinking her milk and turning away from the biscuits. The child is too thin. Why don’t they feed her enough? At her age I could walk miles to fetch water. She is barely able to walk to the kitchen.

12 noon: Everyone is finally awake. Last night’s drinks have ebbed into this morning’s hangovers. Coffees, Teas, more Coffees. The Ayah(Usha) from next door comes to give me a hand. She chats incessantly. My attention wanders, but I can’t help but be riveted by stories of “Baby”, the seventeen year old wild child next door. She has a drug habit and an abortion that’s been hushed up. The father is at his wits’ end and the mother is seeking spiritual enlightenment in an Ashram. We smile conspiratorially. High society and low society often have similar problems. I can think of a few wild ones from my village too, as can Usha. We get on with our work.

I re enter my room and help the old woman up. She stares at me reproachfully. She has wet herself. The smell of urine and sweat make me gag. I shove her into the bathroom and quickly strip off the bedding. She sits there incontinent and incoherent. I bathe her rapidly, trying not to touch her paper thin flaccid skin.

She hums to herself while I comb her hair. I catch snatches of an old hindi song. I’m finishing up when memsahib enters.

” Lajjo, is mama ready?”, The old woman beside me stiffens. Memsahib prattles on. “Oh good. All nice and fresh, mama? Bring her out will you? She can sit with the guests for a while”

The old woman’s dislike for her daughter in law is legendary. She was the woman who stole her beloved son. But sahib never bothers with his mother. He barely even sees her. Just as his father before him never did. Memsahib,for all her faults, makes sure the old lady is fed and taken care of. Not that she forgets to remind her husband of this fact every so often, ever so subtly.

2 pm: I sweat over the chapattis. The kitchen is like a furnace. There is no fan and when a bead of sweat falls into the potato curry, I just stir it in.

More guests have arrived and they are too busy regaling each other with stories to notice me. I keep replenishing their plates, and the London memsahib is the only one who thanks me.

Raj bhai has just woken up, and he is tickling Priya who is giggling uncontrollably. I nearly drop the dish I’m holding. Sahib’s voice is like a whiplash!

The London memsahib, they call her Juju, takes it out of my hands and places it on the table. She is pretty and she is kind. I see how Raj bhai watches her when she is unaware. Her husband, pot bellied, with a pug like face, is too busy talking stocks and shares with his uncle,my sahib.He doesn’t care enough to notice their little flirtation.

3:30 pm: The last of the dirty dishes have been cleaned and put away. I’ve scarcely lain down and I hear a whisper. I open my eyes warily to see Juju memsahib smiling down at me apologetically.

“Lajjo, I hope you don’t mind…I know it’s an imposition….You’ve been so busy….”

Yes, yes…get on with it ,I feel like saying, arranging my face into polite curiosity.

” Auntie wants me to go to the salon with her…. I really can’t refuse…Would you keep an eye on the girls for me…?”

I nod and smile. Maybe there will be an extra 100 rupees in it for me, I think churlishly, while they spend a 1000 getting prettified.

The children sit watching loud garish cartoons, while I doze fitfully. Priya lies next to me, smelling all flowery and fresh, my rancid smell covering her.

Mahi sits at a distance, watching the screen, and her sister in equal measures.

I dip in and out of strange disconcerting dreams. My mother is in one of them. Not as I saw her last; laid out on the funeral pyre, dressed in her bright red wedding saree, the bindi and the ash covering her entire forehead, as my father stood ready to light her up. No, she is younger, still well, still happy. Singing to me as she sews a button on my shirt. Then, just as suddenly she’s gone. To be replaced by the sharp tongued harpy my father married, who is now singing to her daughter, as I wash the floor. I weave in and out of consciousness, feeling a hand on my thigh…and then not… I whimper, and then am completely awake. Priya is asleep and Mahi watches me with her measured gaze.

5 pm: The marquee has been put up and the caterers are arriving. The air is heavy with the sent of marigolds. Sahib is directing the men to lay out the stalls in a particular order. Memsahib is talking to the wedding planner.

“Roshni, I want a good mix of music…. Bollywood,yes, but more western….Madonna, Rihanna…you know….”

The bemused wedding planner is nodding at the instructions.

There are lights everywhere, and the band that will escort Raj bhai on his mare are making themselves comfortable in the corner, with their refreshments. They’ll need a lot of samosas for stamina.

I feel a bit sick and sweaty, and the sudden trickle of blood between my legs doesn’t help.

I catch Raj bhai’s eye as he comes out of his room. He winks at me. I look away, and when I look back, he’s gone.

The evening is a blur of activity. I iron shirts and sarees and dresses for the little girls. I coax the old woman into the living room where she sits like a grand old Buddha, belching lightly into the air. The men laugh,smoke and crack open bottles of whiskey. The women float about in their chiffons and their diamonds in a cloud of expensive perfumes.

I finally get to the bathroom, and turn on the tap to fill my bucket. I examine my naked body meanwhile. The breasts are beginning to sag. After all I am not that young anymore. Twenty eight and I have spied my first grey hair. Not on my head but there. Nestling there so comfortably, as though it’s always belonged. A sob catches in my throat. But I wash myself, scrubbing vigorously, till I have emptied my mind and heart.

The homemade pad sits awkwardly between my legs, chafing my thighs as I walk. I smell fresh though….a bit like the jasmine flowers I’ve put in my hair.

8:30 pm: The pounding in my head seems to be in rhythm with the music outside. The wedding procession is almost ready to leave. The band is blaring out a brand new hit Bollywood number with great gusto…. The extended family is dancing, drunk on the moment….this great joyous moment of the union of two families. And what a union it is! Two big players joining forces….Two major Industrialists coming together….What a merger! What a marriage!!

Raj bhai looks very dapper in his sherwani and turban. Juju memsahib is melting under his gaze. Her hand hovers a little too long on his lapel, and then with a laugh and a blush she moves on. He pulls the curtain of flowers down over his face. Someone helps him up on the mare. There is a lot of cheering and hooting. The wedding procession starts its slow march. Not far to go. After all the bride lives two streets away.

I watch them leave. No one notices me. Or so I think. Then I look around to see Mahi’s eyes on me. There is curiosity and a smidgen of sympathy.But my answering gaze is savage, and alarmed, she runs to join her mother.

9 pm: After all the frenzied activity of the last week, the sudden quiet is a welcome respite. I can still hear them in a distance…but it is fading…

They won’t be back till later. Much later. And tomorrow, it’ll start again. Might as well enjoy the peace.

The old woman sits in the room patiently, waiting to be fed. I mash the rice and potato curry, and feed her absently, watching the latest episode of my favourite soap. I like the family dramas. All the women are so beautiful and the men so handsome. I like the way the camera zooms back again and again to their faces as they say something dramatic.I don’t particularly like the cat eyed, cunning one. That’s the trouble maker. She reminds me of my step mother. There, she’s lying again…lying to save her skin…and get the heroine into trouble. I gasp at the cheek of it! I hear an answering gasp from the old lady.I turn to her, surprised at her interest.

She is turning blue. At first I don’t understand. And then I do. I watch frozen, as she keels over, ever so slowly….just like they do in my soaps. There are grains of rice still stuck to the corners of her mouth. I wait for some kind of a dying declaration. But none comes. The air is heavy with her silence.

I look at her lying there; so fat, so old, so dead,  and start to laugh. My shoulders shake helplessly, and I double up. My stomach hurts as I laugh and I laugh and I laugh.

I laugh till tears stream down my face.

THE  END