Authors: Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla
Rahul sprinkled red pepper over his pizza and suddenly she found herself resenting even this quotidian act. How can his taste buds, like other aspects of his life—color coordinating his clothes, dousing himself with his Jaipur cologne that even now made her spin with desire, shaving, breathing—not have lost their meaning in the aftermath of their parting?
She toggled back and forth between these two states—complete tenderness vacillating with abrupt corrosiveness. She loved him and now she was beginning to resent him because it seemed he didn’t love her enough to fight for them, or even to appear disrupted. Watching him cater to his epicurean needs, she found that her love had commenced a frightening and irrevocable transition into something else, something darker, more alloyed with hate.
“How’s Ajay?” he asked, his eyes protective, cautious.
She dabbed her mouth with a paper napkin. “He thinks that all of this is his fault. He wants to know where you are. I didn’t know what to tell him. I told him we were trying to work things out.”
“And in the meantime? Where did you tell him I was?”
“On a business trip.” Knowing this explanation would only suffice for so long, she looked up at him expectantly. Here was his cue to confirm what she had said, to impress himself back into her life.
Rahul put down the slice of pizza, struggling to come up with words. “Could you tell him…Maybe tell him I’m staying with a friend, a roommate or something?”
She looked at him, almost undiscerning for a moment, then made an exasperated sound. “Roommate? You want me to tell him his father has moved in with a roommate?” She slapped down her slice on the plate and looked out the window, beyond the parked cars. A moth clung to the pane of glass from the other side, inches away from her face. Its forewings were the color of burnt leaves but there were startling markings in red, as if it was stained by its own blood. She thought of the countless poems and songs paying tribute to the
, which flung itself recklessly into the
or flame, its passions overruling any concern for its own life. And this is just how she burned for him, wanting desperately to cling to him, to immolate herself into him.
“I’m sorry,” he said abjectly, realizing he was hurting her. “Maybe I should talk to him. Explain…”
She looked at him, seized with sudden rancor. “Talk to him? And tell him what? What are you going to tell him?” She turned away again, disgusted. How dare he? How dare he stoop to such filth and still have the temerity, the sheer audacity, to explain himself to his own son as if he had renounced his family to become some kind of selfless mendicant? All these years, they had protected Ajay from the ugliness of the past and now he wanted to expose their son to this?
He doesn’t miss Ajay. He doesn’t miss me. He wants to make this final.
This became evident to her now that Rahul was so willing to explain everything to Ajay. She couldn’t understand how he could do without her, why he suddenly didn’t need her, but because she couldn’t bring herself to say this, she said, “If I spend a little too long away from my son, I feel as if my life is going to end, like I’m losing my mind, and you, you make it seem like you can just…”
Rahul opened his mouth to say something, as if he was shocked she would even think such a thing—that this wasn’t hurting him as much as it was hurting her—but then he just smiled sadly and looked away as if it was no use admitting how much he loved his son, how just because he was the cause of this, didn’t mean it was any easier on him or that he relished seeing her in pain. When he looked back at her, Pooja thought she detected a glassiness in his eyes and she suddenly felt sorry for accusing him of such, even though hurting him made her feel good at least momentarily. Besides, wasn’t she partly to blame for the distance between father and son? Looking back now, she realized she had been so possessive, so protective and readily available to Ajay, that it had left little room for Rahul to insert himself.
Some bystanders waiting for their order at the counter had started taking notice. Rahul smiled awkwardly at them as Pooja tried to rein herself in, again looking away into the distance as tears sprang into her eyes. The moth had fluttered away, not a mark left on the glass. She felt bereft, as if its departure also added to the betrayals.
“I think things, terrible, terrible things,” she spoke again, dazed. “It’s not like me to think these things. And yet, I don’t know what to do, what’s happening to me…”
He placed his hand gently upon hers as if to say,
everything that has happened to you has happened to me too,
but the warmth of his touch, the subtle pressure he applied in it, made her long for something more, a reaction far more impassioned than the one he could give. And suddenly she was able to recognize something she might always have known about the man she loved but which she had never acknowledged as a handicap—that a man caught in the traps of his own conflicts becomes inert and loses the capacity to feel himself as a moving force.
Rahul was always quite willing to answer any questions posed to him, but he felt lost when left to his own resources, as if his opinions, his own faculty of expression had been swallowed up by inner chaos. This detached, tormented, impenetrable part of Rahul was what had attracted Pooja to him from the very beginning, so it became painful for her to see now that the very thing that attracted her was the thing that eventually drove her away.
Rahul retracted his touch but her hand remained on the patch of cold Formica, fluttering as if something valuable had been snatched out of it.
“I want to say things, profound things,” she said, “Something to make you stay. I know there are some words, there must be some words,
Something? Something that can change…what you’re doing to us. But I feel the moment, it just comes and goes. And there are no words. They don’t come to me. Nothing. I feel lost. Don’t know what to say. Where are the words?” she asked, her eyes welling up.
He reached out, squeezed her hand again. Yes, she could see that it was painful for him to watch her like this but his pity, devoid of reconciliation, singed her and this time, she drew back her hand.
“I’m sorry. I should see him,” he said, nodding his head resolutely. “I should talk to Ajay.”
“I’ll tell him,” Pooja said, her hopes escaping in a tender sigh. “I’ll tell him you’re staying with a friend. For now, the less Ajay knows the better.”
* * *
Having lived by himself for so long, Atif had grown accustomed to his space and freedom. Like someone who gets used to a physical defect, like the scar on his lip, he had made peace with his solitude, even grown possessive of it. So when Rahul moved in—first for a few days, which turned into a week and then, after Atif had convinced him to stay on, indefinitely—there came a period of adjustment, of the realization, not altogether hindering, that he had been delivered again to the world of familial ties and intimacy.
For the first time in Atif’s life, space had to be made. In the hallway, so that much larger shoes, buffed to an immaculate shine and enforced with cedar trees, could park alongside Atif’s sneakers and penny loafers; in the closet, where dusty, long forgotten, mustard-colored pants and hooded flannel shirts had to finally be discarded in garbage bags so that tailored Armani suits and crisply pressed white shirts could also hang; in the bathroom caddy where the silhouetted bottle of light sesame oil had to sit next to a hulking can of shaving foam; on the sofa, where the left side offering the best view of the TV set was no longer Atif’s for the taking, and in bed, where the middle, once just a spot from which its breadth seemed reduced and tolerable, where Atif could lie like a Vitruvian man and convince himself of spatial luxury, became the place where solitudes now melded as two bodies jostled together.
All these things he celebrated. In his mind he heard one of the few
songs that Zainab Aunty had enjoyed and which the iconic actress Nargis had sung to her real-life lover Raj Kapoor in the film Awaara:
Ghaar aaya mera pardesi,
Pyaas bujhi meri aankhiyan ki
Tu mere mann ka moti hai,
In nainon ki jyoti hai
Yaad hai mere bachpan ki
Ghaar aaya mera pardesi
My lover has returned home
And quenched the thirst of my eyes.
You are the pearl of my mind,
The light of my eyes,
The memory of my childhood.
My lover has returned home.
These were the lovers’ rituals Atif had been denied and which, after decades of yearning, he thought he would never share. Now they were his and he reveled in their mundane enchantment. He found Rahul, not just stealing hours from the day to be with him, but present without haste or negotiation. Atif realized that they had passed a kind of test. They were bound on a soul level, down to their very molecules and as such, he would never have to worry about the trivial inconveniences inherent in living together. These were negligible little thorns that had to be clipped off, overlooked, if flowers were to be enjoyed.
But somewhere in the back of Atif’s mind lurked the fear that all this could be taken away from him just as easily. A marriage of decades, a grown son who carried Rahul’s name, and a lifetime of conditioning still awaited Rahul on the other side. Atif did his best not to discuss any of this, as if even bringing up Rahul’s family in a conversation was opening a door to them. For as long as he could, Atif would continue to pretend Rahul’s decision was irrevocable, their future together sealed, inevitable.
* * *
Pooja saw that nothing ever dies. Everything that happens—all actions and emotions—is trapped in the walls, the spaces, furnishings, leaving
imprints that haunt long after the incident.
The possessed house drove her into the streets where at least momentarily, she found some solace in being one of the city’s agitated drivers, unable to just drive off or away from her affliction. There were seldom any clear streets in Los Angeles and many times, clasped in the middle of traffic, on a street with no reason and among people who couldn’t reconcile the city’s congestion no matter how many times they encountered it, she found a strange comfort in their collective anguish.
Many times Pooja ventured to the bookstore as if by catching a glimpse, by observing the behavior of the boy who had stolen her life from her, she might be able to understand more about the man she had been married to for more than twenty years, whose child she had borne, and who now remained a mystery to her.
Maybe, she excited herself into thinking, she could reason with this boy, plead with him, appeal to his heart, some sense of justice, and make him see just how wrong all of it was. But every time she had been there, she could get no farther than the parking lot where Sonali must have caught them. Her own shame became so intense that her body began burning, her blood flooded with heat, and she drove back home to employ new words, fresh tears to plumb more desperate modes of emotional bartering to convince Krishna to come to her aid. She would give anything, do anything, endure anything if Rahul came back to her. It was not just her love that was being tested now, but her faith too.
After praying, whenever hope whispered, she remembered their meeting at the pizzeria, his resolve to come clean with their son, the complete lack of any regret in his voice or countenance, and she felt gutted until feeling itself abandoned her. From morphine numbness to terror, she shuttled back and forth, wondering if she was losing her mind, if it would be easier to just end her life. Then surely Rahul would suffer, he would mourn, the shadow of guilt would be cast upon his new life. But then she thought of Ajay and even though he was a grown man now, she knew she could never leave him with the kind of emotional legacy that Rahul’s parents had bequeathed them.
Then one day Pooja saw the boy. It was a little past noon and from where she sat in the parking lot, she saw him walking back into the bookstore carrying a bouquet of tuberoses wrapped in brown paper like a baby in his arms. They must have come from the farmers’ market nearby. She fought the urge to confront him, to tear the fragrant stalks into bits.
While he was perfuming his world with her husband,
her own world was being charred to ashes.
At that moment, she felt like her entire body was coated with salt so that every injury she had ever suffered in her life was inflamed. She stayed in the car and broke down crying.
Pooja’s catering suffered. The last order of cashew marzipan that Parmesh had picked up had been made with too much sugar. Charlie had called to ask if Pooja was trying out a new recipe and if she could go back to the original recipe customers preferred. She no longer dolled herself up for appearances, caring nothing for the exoticism she once tried to impart. What was the point? While she had been simmering curries and chopping up almonds and cashews into a fine paste, her husband had found solace and shelter in another man.
The moment she had fallen to barely rinsing the basmati rice, to emptying jars of store-bought simmering sauces into the saucepans and using packaged spice mélanges instead of hand-picking each ingredient like selecting notes for a symphony, Pooja stopped taking even the few private orders from the loyal though infrequent clients in the Palisades. Why care? Would they know the difference? Apparently not. There had been no callback of any sort, no complaints. She had made her impression in the very beginning and now they subscribed to her unquestioningly, just as she had believed in Rahul and had continued to follow him through this thicket of betrayal.