The unsung heroes

Behind every successful man, there stands a woman. This quotation, dipped as it is in veracity, came home to me particularly as I wandered through Anne Hathaway’s cottage in the village of Shottery, Warwickshire. I had already visited Shakespeare’s birthplace, seen his old home, and the home he died in. Seen the second edition of his collected works, housed as it was behind a glass case. Been astounded by his prodigious works, his overwhelming talent for tackling any subject matter, and transforming it for the appetite of his times and the times thereafter. The bard of Avon had rightfully earned his place in History as a literary giant of gargantuan proportions.

But what of his wife? There is very little known about Anne Hathaway except that she was 26 to his 18 years, and with child when they married. Neither fact was particularly outstanding in those days. Women, unless they were of noble houses, often married later, and sometimes, enceinte. There has been speculation that it was a shotgun wedding. Regardless, it was a marriage that lasted; in fact, survived long separations, the death of a child, and Shakespeare’s rumoured peccadilloes.

So why is so much of her life shrouded in mystery? Why so little of his works devoted to her? Mainly, I imagine, because, then as now, in many countries and cultures, women were relegated to the background.  They were and are the spinal columns that support the ambitions of their partners. Yet so few are given their due.

Talking to a friend over lunch the other day, she mentioned how hard they were working as a couple. On the surface, this seemed like an interesting turn of phrase, seeing as he was the one with the career, and she was a stay at home mum. But of course, for him to have that career, to work those long unsociable hours, it fell to her to hold the entire structure up. Without her, he would not be able to soar or to achieve.

Conversely, I know of many a man, who has made a similar sacrifice. In a modern day marriage, where women are equally capable, and sometimes get the career opportunities denied to the spouse, it is the husband that takes the back seat. The only down side to this trend is the statistical data that shows that despite this, it is often the woman who still takes on the lion share of housework and child rearing.

At any rate, it is time to acknowledge the contribution that these unsung heroes make. For every Shakespeare, there is an Anne. For every Margaret Thatcher, there is a Dennis. For without these strong, often stronger mates, the other would be rudderless.

To that end, I must thank my own husband, without whom I could not do what I do. The job that I do, the hours I spend away from home, and the hobbies he lets me indulge in, without censure. To use that oft repeated cliché: He is the wind beneath my wings.

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Ma Vie sans Couleur

I was in a strange mood when this story came to me unbidden. I have often wondered what it must be like for the left over generations of the colonials, who were never quite accepted by either culture. More especially, if their blood was seen to be tainted by either side. In the claustrophobic microcosm of this story, the old wars with the new.The young with that which is slowly dying out. It unfolds in fits and starts and a lot of gaps that I purposely do not fill. This is an inedible story. One that I hope sticks in your gullet and makes you choke a little.

    MA VIE SANS COULEUR

BLUE (cerulean,sapphire,indigo,cyan):

The colour of the ocean, or the sky, or even better, the deep dark mysterious blue of the sapphire that hangs on her mother’s neck.

She dabs a bit of blue on the brush, and with sure, swift strokes, deposits it on the canvas before her. It is dark, rich and pigmented in the centre, till she swirls it out, and the colour spreads thickly, rapidly reaching out to the edges, as though seeking to escape the confines of its parameters.

Her finger touches the blue. She feels the tackiness of it. Smells the faint metallic odour.

Sophie?”

“Hmmm?”

“No, it is not enough. You have to be one with the canvas. You have to be the creator, and the creation.”

She looks up at the large figure of her father. Hears his raspy breath as he points and gesticulates, the smoke from his cigar billowing up around him.

Her heart swells with adoration.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

It is her again. Thumping her stick on the floor.

“Sophie? Sophieeeeeee!”

“Coming, I’m coming”

YELLOW(lemon,amber,canary,citrine):

The sun is setting outside, and her studio has an otherworldly glow about it. Briefly she wonders whether there is any point in trying to capture the sunset. Then she turns and appraises herself in the mirror. Not today.

Her dress has yellow daffodils on it. They make her happy. A little gloss on her lips and she feels ready: a bit sexy, a bit daring.

“You look like an Anglo Indian.” The old woman rocks back and forth in her chair, her lip curled, her eyes vicious.

She ignores her, and takes the keys from the dresser.

Colin is late. She paces up and down under the watchful gaze of the crone.

An hour later, she knows he is not coming. She throws the keys to one side and dashes up the stairs.

There is still enough light to work. The paint falls in splodges on her dress. The yellow calms her down.

Lying in the sun. Kissing softly. One hand on her breast. The other reaching under her skirt. Pushing it away, but laughing all the same. Stretching out and feeling the rays on her face. Turning to him and running her hands down the length of his body.

“Yes, yes, yes.”

GREEN(viridescent,sage,avocado,emerald) :

The ‘maali’ is cutting the grass today. She can smell the freshness of it. The sonorous sound of the lawnmower at work is making her sleepy. She lies on the couch, half dozing. Her thighs are wet. She cannot understand why. She looks for her mother. Her mother is sitting at the piano,playing her favourite, Fur Elise.

“Maman? Maman?”

She keeps playing, a sweet smile hovering on her lips, her head swaying to the music.

“Maman?”

She turns. Her eyes are blazing. She points at her skirt and screams, “Putain!”

She awakes with a start. There is a dull pounding behind her eyes.

The soup she makes is enough for the two of them. They eat in silence.

“So, he didn’t call?”

“No, Maman, he didn’t.”

“Another one that got away, eh Sophie? You will be an old maid like your auntie Renée”, she cackles into her soup.

PINK(rose,salmon,coral,fuchsia):

The roses arrive two days later. There is a small card with a ‘sorry’ written on it. She doesn’t know what to make of it.

She takes them into her room and deposits them in a vase. They are pink, overblown, fantastically sensuous. Their heady fragrance repels her.

She watches them from a distance.

She takes one and crushes the petals between her fingers, till the scent is all over her hand. She smears it on her face. Not enough. Never enough.

They are kissing behind the curtain. She can hear them. She peeks. Her father sits with his thighs splayed. Renée sits on him. Up and down they bounce. She watches, fascinated. Renée’s pink tongue protrudes, and she sighs, a deep long sigh. They shudder in unison. She replaces the curtain and runs quietly back to her room. 

GREY(storm,slate,dove,clay):

The ocean is a deep,murky grey that mimics her mood. She walks alone on the beach. It is early morning and the hawkers are setting up their stalls. They ignore her as she drifts past.  They stopped paying attention a long time ago.

She watches the child collect shells. He is small but wiry. His limbs are browned from the sun, and suddenly she is envious of his colour. His brownness, his earthiness.

“They are a dirty people. Uncivilised, uncouth, unclean. They need to be ruled with a firm hand. Our forefathers did a lot of good in this country. Look, what we’ve made of this sorry patch of land!  Look at what they have done since Independence. I tell you, Sophie, they are no good for themselves.” 

“But Maman….”

“But nothing! Someday you will visit France and see… You will understand…”

BROWN(wood,oak,tan,ochre):

“Memsahib?”

“Yes, Ajay?”

“The groceries have arrived. Do you want to go over the bill?”

She peruses the familiar items, marking off the prices absentmindedly, looking for the invariable few rupees that go missing along the way. She sees it and ignores it. “Fool!”, Maman screams in her mind. She suppresses her sudden shiver.

“Put it all away Ajay, and tell Rajan to buy some extra lamb for the stew tomorrow.”

The newspaper headlines jostle with one another to be the most calamitous. She reads them briefly. The bundle of Paris Match has been delivered to the old woman’s room. She doesn’t emerge till noon. Then, it seems as though she has been crying.

“If it weren’t for your father dying so suddenly, I would have been home now. Who was to know he had so many debts? Now I will be stuck in this God Forsaken country forever.”

Brown against white. It makes a pretty contrast. They laugh about it. They are young, still. He touches her skin reverentially. 

“You are the most beautiful creature I have ever made love to”

“And how many creatures have you made love to?”, she giggles into his ear.

They kiss and hold each other tight, squeezing the breath out of each other’s bodies, trying to amalgamate into one: Brown and White, White and Brown.

WHITE(almond,cream,lily,oyster):

What was she looking for? She cannot remember. There are papers scattered everywhere. Only one paper matters. The one she is holding in her hand.

Her mother’s birth certificate.

She enters her room. It is close to dusk, and she is watching an old movie on the Television.

“Why did you lie to me?”

” Comment?” She turns to her impatiently.

“You lied.”

She watches her through half lidded eyes.

“Sophie, you are a fool! That piece of paper means nothing.”

“To you….to you….”, she sobs, “But to me….!”

The old woman stands up with an effort, and comes towards her. The force of her slap sends her reeling backwards.

“Listen to me, you little wretch! I am French through and through. Do you understand?”

She is not allowed to say goodbye to him. She is shipped off to Paris. In that civilised world, she feels like an alien.There are no friends here, only strangers. Her art is all she has. She grows thin and develops a stoop. No one wants her now. She is so white she is almost transparent.

GOLD(aurelian,gilt,flaxen,honey):

It is at the Consulate General they meet again. So many years. They have been kind to him. His eyes pass over her, only to return; shocked, bemused.

“How are you, Sophie?”

“I…I…”, she stutters embarrassingly.

She cannot get enough of him. Her eyes travel over his widened girth, the grey at his temples, the thin scar above his lip.

“Meet my wife – Anjolie.”

A burnt orange sari encases silken limbs. Her eyes are lined with kohl, and her gaze is not unkind. They float away together, in a golden haze.

Father Dead. Come home.

The mountain of debts paid off slowly by the sale of the family silver, the land and the cars. The paintings are worthless. Mediocre artist. There is no depth here, she is informed. She puts them away in an unused room. She cannot look at them anymore.

SILVER(chrome,pewter,pearly,argent):

The cheque for her first sale arrives in the morning post. Rs 15000. It will do. There is a buzz about her paintings now. One reviewer calls them “full of rage and unexplained angst”. She laughs at that.

She looks through her drawer and finds the thin silver chain her father gave her on her sixteenth birthday. It is somewhat tarnished, but she wears it with pride, and something akin happiness.

She enters the room and opens the shutters. The paintings lie there propped against the wall. Slowly she pulls off the sheets and examines them again. They are curious things. She can see herself in so many- a foot here, a small hand there- all hers. She posed for them.

Then she looks at the last one he painted. The one she has not shown Maman.

Renée lying on her side, her breasts pendulous, her stomach rounded. One hand propping her up, one hand on the dark thatch between her legs.

She looks at it for a long time.

There is a small, dark eyed boy standing next to Renée. He shakes hands politely. 

“Sophie, this is Jacques. My son.”

She doesn’t need to know anymore. She turns and flees, never to return to that apartment on the 11th Arrondissement.

BLACK(raven,ebony,charcoal,night):

The old woman slurps her porridge noisily. She looks up suddenly. “Are you going out today? Where are you always disappearing to? You have no regard for me. I am always left behind.”

“Come with me then.”

“Come with you? Where? I cannot walk far…and in this heat?”

Sophie brings the cheque in.

“This needs depositing. I have to go to the bank.”

The old woman inspects the cheque.

“Well, it is time you started to earn your keep. Go on…off you go. I will keep myself busy.”

She returns late afternoon. The old woman is sitting in her rocking chair, careening back and forth with a manic intensity. There is a wild look in her eyes. She looks at Sophie and smirks.

The paintings have been slashed. Ripped.Decimated.She stands amidst the carnage, shaking.

“Sit still, little one. Papa must get the colour of your eyes just right. You have such pretty eyes, ma petite chou!”

“Papa, why don’t you ever paint Maman?”

“Beauty such as your Maman’s cannot be captured on canvas, Sophie.”

RED(carmine,russet,cardinal,scarlet):

There are red spots before her eyes, and she cannot breathe. Memories lie in tatters about her. Slowly she starts gathering up the pieces of canvas she can salvage. She comes upon the knife that has wreaked the devastation. It lies mute, an instrument of a resurrected vendetta. She picks it up.

“Why Maman?”

The old woman rocks back and forth, her mouth twisting, her pupils dilated.

Sophie grabs the chair.

“Answer me!”

“His touch was filth. Everything…everything he touched turned dirty….Me…you….Renée….No more….No more filth….”

“Oh Maman!”, she kneels at her feet, weeping. Gnarled fingers stroke her hair absently.

The blood is a deep, viscous red. There is so much of it. She lies in the velvet softness, letting its warmth seep through her weary limbs.

“This won’t hurt bébé. You are Papa’s little poulette. Lie here. Let me show you how.”

Her eyes start to close and slowly she drifts off to sleep. Her dreams are laced with crimson.

THE  END

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The Reunion

It was a pretty mammoth one, considering the build up and the organisation had been three years in the making. Out of a batch of a 160, give or take a few, 70 odd made it from various parts of India and the world, to celebrate their alma mater. Twenty five years, a quarter of a century, is a fair bit of time to grow far far away from the trunk of the tree, but the roots have an umbilical pull, a clarion call that rung out into the far corners of the world, pulling us back to what had once been a central part of our universe: our school.

Just before leaving for this Alumni meeting that I was so excited to be going to, I ran into an American lady at my local salon. We got chatting and I mentioned that I would be meeting friends I hadn’t seen in twenty five years. She said something that stayed with me long after. At her 10th year, High School reunion she said, people were puffed up with a sense of their own importance. They were there to show how much they had accomplished. How many degrees they had, how far they had climbed up the corporate ladder. In contrast, she said, at the 25th, people were far more relaxed. They had nothing to prove anymore. Consequently, it made for a better atmosphere.

I had been in touch with at least 30 of my batch mates on this modern marvel of technology, an application called Whatsapp. We had joked together, planned together, ribbed one another, and the curiosity and the excitement had reached a deafening crescendo, one that I was willing to bet, would peter into a whimper. How wrong I was! Four days in the company of this riotous crowd far exceeded any expectations our collective visions could have conjured.

There were no egos. People came from all walks of life. There were those who had done tremendously well for themselves, while there were others who had settled into cosy domesticity, or more mundane careers. There was no one upmanship. Each one was glad for the other. Rejoicing in one another’s successes, and providing a listening ear to the sorrows. As we gathered together, this motley crowd in our forties, stranger themes emerged.

Old infatuations were revealed. Young men who had yearned, but never had the nerve to reveal it to the objects of their affection, declared now with great gusto, how much in love they had been. The recipients of all this ardour were at first abashed, and then revelled in this late great show of gumption. Curiouser still were the sparks that flew between random batch mates. Late bloomers who had peaked in their attractiveness were naturally most sought after. It was, for the most part, an innocent rekindling of long forgotten embers.

Ex flames met up, and exchanged niceties, all rancour forgotten. Too much water under those bridges. Then there were the mostly seen, never heard, so called nerds of the batch. All grown up now. Their personalities honed into a distinct attractiveness, rough hewn by life, their fierce intelligence giving them an edge over their jock contemporaries.

There was a getaway after the main event. Another occasion to bond over food, laughter, music, provided by a home grown, phenomenally talented singer in our batch, alcohol (the names and varieties that I shall omit), dancing and general tomfoolery. Four days culminating in a night long orgy of revelry.

At the end of those four days, the only regret we had was that it wasn’t longer.

Why was it so special? Was it because, never before nor ever again, would we be able to recreate this magic? Or because, each one of us could feel the last of our youth slipping away? And this was our way, our tiny little attempt, to hold on to the vestiges of that incredible time, our childhood, with mates whom we had shared our (mostly) ignominious past with.

There is talk of another get together in a few years time. Another attempt to gather together this crazy (and I say this with a lot of affection) crowd of nut cases, and head off for the hills, or a beach somewhere. Will it come to pass? On this grand a scale? I doubt it very much. But who is to know for sure? After all I was proven wrong this time. I hope I am again.

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