Authors: Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla
“Such selfless talk is hardly going to help me to get over you,” Atif said, trying to pull himself together, to compensate for his lapse. “Waking up with someone is overrated anyway. Who needs bad breath, crusty eyes? And you probably snore.” Atif wiped the tears from his eyes before they could spill onto his cheek. “I made you a promise. I intend to keep it. If you should ever decide that you don’t want to continue…”
“No, you won’t understand.”
“Okay, so maybe I won’t. Stay anyway.”
“But one day…”
Atif pulled Rahul’s lips close to his own. “Better to regret what we’ve done than what we won’t allow ourselves to do.”
* * *
Pooja remained outside for a little while after Parmesh left, lingering in the dying light. She was grateful for the extra hours of sunlight that the season bestowed because an overwhelming sense of melancholy pervaded her at dusk. Summer was her favorite time of year. Its heat and radiance took her home to the clamminess of Mombasa and the soporific afternoons when she and Rahul’s sister Kiran would lie down in her in-laws’ verdant garden, looking up at impossibly blue skies and eating
fruit until their lips turned purple.
Suddenly she became aware of her neighbor Sonali Patel, jabbering away on the phone, shuttling between shocked exclamations and wicked laughter. Unlike Pooja, Sonali came from the motherland, the city they now called Mumbai in an ineffectual revolt against India’s imperial legacy. “Stupid people!” Sonali had said, jabbing the air with her hand for emphasis. “Without the British they would still be squatting over pit latrines and riding bullocks to work.”
O-ho! Really? She did what? Hai Ram! Did you see how much weight she’s put on? My God, she’s become a house. At this rate, she’ll be taking in tenants soon…And she has the nerve to tell Sonali she thinks she’s lost a lot of weight. Ha-ha! Oh, my
, you are really too, too much!
Sonali had the irritating habit of using her name in the third person, as if she were not the person herself but a mere vehicle for the larger-than-life persona residing within.
Not too long ago, over a cup of masala chai at Pooja’s, Sonali had brandished a copy of
and excitedly explained the reason for Pooja’s melancholia as being menopause. “Hormone therapy, darling,” she had touted. “It’s the way to go these days, don’t you know?” When Pooja pointed out that unlike Sonali, she wasn’t “quite up there” Sonali had wrinkled her nose and said,
Fine! Do as you please then and don’t eat my head when you become suicidal. Helping people has become such a crime these days I don’t know why Sonali even tries! But what can one do? You know my heart—it’s as big as the ocean. Sonali just can’t bear it when others are suffering!” and then, without a moment to recover from her indignation, she glutted her face with cocktail-sized samosas with a clumsiness she abhorred in others.
As Pooja looked up at the pastel canvas of sky, she tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear and said goodbye to Surya, imagining the plumes of color as the dust the God’s chariot kicked up as it receded into the heavens. The driveways were once again greeted with parked cars, homes were filled with the laughter and idle chatter of families over supper and from where she stood on the porch, surrounded by the effusive blooms of intoxicating jasmine and roses, she could see the park at the end of the cul de sac, now brightly lit with floodlights. Little children in their sports attire were running around and although she was so far away, in her mind, she could hear their laughter, their innocence and abandon. This is where, in her loneliness, Pooja often found some solace, in the indistinct, anonymous sounds of life in the homes of her neighbors.
The blocks leading up to the park were lined with jacaranda trees in full bloom. Every now and then a slight breeze would cause the faintly fragrant lavender-colored flowers to cascade from the tree’s canopy and carpet the street. Come winter, she thought sadly, their purple rain would be depleted and the white star-shaped blooms of jasmine would wilt and take their fragrance with them. Night blanketed the sky but there was not a single star to be found. She went back into the sleeping house where the CD player shuffled and Ali Akbar Khan’s poignant
fell upon it like a veil.
Loneliness ensconced Pooja. Minutes began to stretch like a roadway, uncoiling, driving the destination further from reach. The clatter of dishes, the rambunctious chatter of dinner conversation echoed from somewhere. Both father and son had found whole universes that took of all their time and none of hers. Their world had expanded, opened up. Hers had shrunk, reduced to the space within the boundaries of her home.
She cleared off Parmesh’s glass of
from the coffee table. There, in the stillness that had started to stifle her of late and remind her more and more of the home she had left behind, Pooja thought of Parmesh some more. Why, when the West had seduced even her own people, was he so lost to his own culture? Where her own people had whored out their gods, Americans were ready to renounce their luxuries, shave their heads, bang cymbals and accost people with portable Gitas.
These days, she thought sadly, nothing is sacrosanct, least of all our religion. We’ve consigned our divinity to commerce. The same deities at whose altars millions of us still performed
to whom we implore for divine intervention, could also be found silk-screened onto vibrant stretch t-shirts and standing guard on toilet seat covers where we defecated. Laxmi, goddess of prosperity, love and beauty was no longer just in temples but could also be found blooming out of her lotus over our piss and shit. And Radha and Krishna were not just holding court in her altar but also stuck in convoluted poses over cans of Kama Sutra paraphernalia holding flavored massage oils and clusters of feathers to tickle one another with.
Such a passion kit had been presented to Sonali at her birthday party. Everyone had oohed and aahed, but Pooja had just sat there with flushed cheeks. She tried to join in the bawdy laughter of the group but all she could think of was: Is this what it would take to reignite desire in Rahul—a stupid pail of toys? She could only imagine what Rahul’s face would look like if she waited up for him under the covers one night, armed with a feather brush in one hand and chocolate-flavored massage oil in another.
Pooja washed out the glass by hand, towel-dried it and returned it into a maple cabinet above the sink. Then she went to the living room and switched on a lamp before settling on the sofa to flip through the latest issue of
But tonight the personal essays, celebrity interviews and regional recipes didn’t grab her. She tossed the magazine aside and leaned back into the sofa, looking up at the impassive ceiling. Everything seemed to be turning upside down, she thought, clicking her tongue. Perhaps this is what Charlie, who had traveled throughout India and lived in an ashram in Pune, had meant when he had talked about the bartering of cultures and the arch of progress.
During one of their brief discourses at The Banyan, inspired when Greg had excitedly announced that he wanted to be called Parmesh, the store owner, with a youthful twinkle in his eyes for Pooja, had explained his theory: we were fatigued by what was culturally inherent.
Pooja, standing on the other side of the glass cabinet in which Charlie was displaying her baked goods, had looked at him inquiringly, and he had continued, “Listen, love, we are all facing the exact opposite set of problems, don’t you see? The East—you Indians, for that matter—has exhausted all methods of introversion. Yoga, fasting, meditation, all that, is no longer able to produce the same effect anymore because the Eastern mind is now hungry for extroversion. It has mastered, gone—as far as it possibly can—on its spiritual journey and to complete itself, it now needs the opposite.”
“Like what, Charlie? MTV?” she asked, wrinkling her nose.
“Modernity,” he said. “Technology. By contrast, the West—all of us—has been practically desiccated by it. So now, we are hungry to learn about the soul. In order for us to feel complete, we now need less of technology and more of what you have to offer. The pendulum, love, has swung.” And then he laughed boisterously, and pointing in Parmesh’s direction, said: “That one’s pendulum, however, might have shifted a little too far.”
As she surveyed the frozen house, she longed to be embraced by the warmth of her mother’s
room, to hear the clashing of little cymbals and hear her sing “Jaago Mohan Pyaare” (which being a dedication to Krishna, Savita Bhatt only sang to pacify little Pooja). Her ears ached for her father’s harping on the importance of being a progressive Indian and the pitfalls of perceiving religion simplistically; she missed Rahul’s elder sister Kiran, their carefree days at school and their highly-strung best friend “Rotal Rukhsana” with her unpredictable crying spells.
Although Pooja knew that talking with her family back home would exacerbate her sense of isolation, she decided to call them anyway. From her purse, she fished out a calling card that had been endorsed by a popular Bollywood film star. Various poses of him with generously moussed hair, tight clothes, and a penetrating gaze covered the little piece of plastic, making it appear as if the card was to serve as a beeline to the star himself. In the card’s commercial which ran incessantly on the Indian satellite show, he had, in between flexing his formidable muscles, enthusiastically endorsed the calling card and expressed how indispensably it had served him every time he was on tour and had to call his family back home. Although Pooja had immediately made a mental note to try that particular brand the next time, Rahul had scoffed, “Now why the hell does this buffoon need a calling card with the
he makes on every film?”
“To buy more steroids,” Ajay said.
“Just look who’s talking. I sense jealousy,” said Rahul.
“Or maybe another thumb for the freak.”
“Ajay,” Pooja cried. “How can you be so mean? I didn’t raise you to make fun of people’s misfortune.” It was common knowledge that this heartthrob of millions had an extra thumb on his right hand, which even Pooja herself had tried to spot religiously in his films. But he always danced too fast and gesticulated with the other hand and it wasn’t an easy task.
“Misfortune? Mom, most people in India don’t have the limbs God gave them. He’s got an extra thumb and money to boot. How’s that any kind of misfortune? And by the way, Pop, I don’t use any of that steroid crap, okay?” He flexed his arm proudly and knocked at the bicep with his fist. “All one-hundred percent natural.”
“I don’t know why you bother with those calling cards, Poo, they’re a nuisance. Just dial direct.”
“Yes, I know money grows on trees so father and son can be as wasteful as they like. Somebody around here has to act responsibly.”
Their voices faded like spirits from the room and the walls withdrew from her. Pooja turned to the phone and punched in the number from the back of the card. When it asked for a pin code, she found she was unable to read the last fading digit and took a chance. The automated voice informed her that it was incorrect. Pooja tried again, this time experimenting with a different last digit. It worked and she was notified of the nine minutes left for redemption. Pooja balked. How was this possible? The card was good for at least forty minutes and so far she had used only ten. There must be a mistake. Pooja hung up the phone and looked at the card. The Bollywood star flashed his most winsome smile, promising much gratification.
She tried again but couldn’t remember the correct pin code. Was it one at the end? Seven? She tried seven and it worked. This time the robotic voice told her she had six minutes left, upsetting her even more, but she held on, the vacuum of distance in her ear. Minutes went by and nothing. Mombasa seemed not only at the other end of the world, but in another realm. Pooja hung up, dialed again, waited, but this time she was informed that the balance was insufficient to complete the call. She slammed the phone down and threw the card with all her might but it fluttered weightlessly and fell rebelliously close to her feet, face up. The Bollywood star looked up at her, flashing his dimpled, impossibly pearly smile. Pooja broke down crying.
* * *
The rituals incumbent on infidelity are myriad.
After partaking in the forbidden, there are, most elementarily, the hours that must be accounted for with excuses of late client dinners, unexpected senior management meetings and overdue financials reports. The appearance has to be affected too, to attest to those hours spent in the drudgery of an unrewarding career instead of clandestinely in the throes of passion. One must wash but with water only since using a strange bar of soap would be tantamount to putting someone else’s perfume on your body. Never scour oneself so clean as to look rejuvenated, but just enough to rinse off the residue of sex
Brush and tousle the hair, and then, drawing the knot of the tie just a few inches short of a neck that was as a rule deprived of rapturous bites, try and embody a state of industrial toil. Finally, most crucially, there is the attitudinal fix—guilt must never be overcompensated for with sudden, cloying attention to the deceived or, on the other hand, hostility for feeling compelled to do so. The skill in being unfaithful was ultimately about balance.
Rahul, having performed the rituals of infidelity, headed back to that place he still called home. The drive back through Santa Monica, now cleared of the claustrophobia of traffic, of denizens desperately maneuvering their way through the city’s clogged arteries in their glittering sarcophaguses, became the meditative part of Rahul’s life. Unless he took the freeway back to Venice—there was no accounting for traffic when it came to the 405—Rahul could enjoy the drive back through side streets and make it home in less than twenty minutes. A savvy Angeleno, he had pored over maps, dared to experiment and knew that there were always easier ways to get somewhere if you were prepared to give up the comfort of familiar routes.