Romance in the Air
by Subhash Chandra
‘Oh, God!” I muttered to myself, when I looked up and saw him standing, holding on to the edge of his seat. The previous week had been hectic -- a paper at a conference in University of Virginia, a lecture at St. Petersburg College and a nephew’s marriage in Miami.
“I’m so extremely sorry,” I said embarrassedly and collected myself into my own seat -- I had spread out on to his. But had he put up the arm-rest to make more room for me to have a comfortable snooze?
“No issues, Ma’am. Please relax,” he said, and slowly, softly lowered himself into his seat. He was in his mid thirties -- my age or may be a little younger -- tall and handsome like Adonis, with long curly, golden mane falling on his neck and happy hazel eyes. He had a poise which irradiated a calming effect. .
A contrasting memory thrust itself on my mind. On the flight from India to Virginia, a middle-aged fellow-Indian had caused tremors while throwing himself into his seat. He was all over me, whenever the plane swerved, despite my leaning away. Disgusting! The journey was a nightmare!
I wondered how long the gentleman had been on his feet. I had started dozing off, even as the plane was taking off. I felt terribly guilty!
The gentleman made no attempt at conversation as many men do, when they find a woman travelling single. I am not a Miss World or Miss India, but I have had to fend off many drooling men over the years.
He had started reading Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker winner, "The Luminaries." Suddenly, a convulsive jerk shook him up, his head stretching in one direction and the body in the other. It was for a split second, but it must have caused extreme physical distress. He went on reading and the convulsions kept on happening. He was a stranger and was none of my concerns. Yet I felt wretched. My heart ached!
Many questions began to trouble me. But asking him was embarrassing and would only confirm the stereotype of nosey Indians. He finished the last few pages, shut the book and kept it in his lap. Though my discipline is not literature, I am an avid reader of fiction.
Catton gave me an opening. “How do you find this award winning novel?” I asked.
“I’m Michael Balmer. Mike to friends,” he said and flashed a smile that was pleasant.
“I’m Daksha Batra.”
“Well, the novel? It’s O.K. sort. Not great.”
Was he being a highbrow? Flaunting his critical superiority?
“Yeah? That’s almost saying it’s not good. But why do you think that?”
“Historical novels have lots of readymade materials for the author to fill pages. Transplanting Victorian on to New Zealand is not very well done by Catton. I value insights into life. Not suspense. It’s an inferior aspect of the craft. Also the novel is too arty. It doesn’t let you forget, you’re reading fiction.”
“My, my. What an indictment! Poor Catton!”
“Sorry. But this is totally impressionistic. The novel has got the Booker. There must be something to it which I’ve missed. Anyways, what’s your take?”
”What do you do, Mr. Balmer … I mean your profession?” I asked.
“I’m a correspondent of The Miami Herald. I’m located in Los Angeles and my beat is California.
“Vow! I’d better shut up! Well…. I found it absorbing ….I mean it’s very readable.”
“You’re in distinguished company. Lucy Daniel in the Telegraph makes almost a similar assessment of the novel. There’re others, too,” he said and smiled. His smile did something to me.
“What do you do?” he asked.
”I dabble in dust and rocks. I’m a seismologist.” I laughed. “I teach Geology in Delhi University. My specialization is earthquakes in the Asiatic region.”
He raised his eyebrows. “My turn to say Vow! A Professor! And what brought you to Miami?
I told him.
He exuded intimate warmth, which gave me a good feeling. During the conversation, I had begun to feel, I had known him for a long time.
Finally, I asked him, “Haven’t you consulted a doctor?”
“Many of them. It is a neurological condition called Myoclonus. No cure. During childhood – it surfaced when I was ten years old – lots of Barbiturates were pumped into me. In the later years, I swallowed fistful of relaxants. But they provide only temporary relief. So now, I’ve stopped them.”
“Doesn’t it interfere with your work, Mr. Balmer?”
“Not now. When it started, it hampered my life. Now I’ve learnt to manage it…. And please, call me Mike and allow me to address you by your first name. Will you?”
“Do they happen during sleep also?” I asked him.
I heaved a sigh of relief which he noticed. “How do you tackle your meals, or typing, Mike?”
“I know its pattern. A convulsion happens almost every ten minutes.
Without looking at the watch, I can tell it’s going to be time for it. More important, there’s an imperceptible tautness in muscles immediately before it comes. I stop whatever I’m doing and let it pass.”
“How long will you be in Los Angeles?” he asked.
“About ten days. My elder brother lives there with his wife and a son.”
“Can we … meet, Daiksha … I mean … if you ….?”
“Sure.” We exchanged phone numbers. I gave him my brother’s.
But there was a feeling of unease inside me.
We met at Catch for lunch. Luxurious ambiance, located on the beach of Santa Monica, Mediterranean cuisine and an enchanting view of the Pacific Ocean!
“Do you like your job?” I asked.
“Hugely! It’s exciting, uncertain and dangerous. Meeting lots of people -- all kinds. One tiff with the Editor over a story and you are out. Journalists make many enemies, but have no police protection. They’re soft targets. But I’ve a lot of job satisfaction.
“What about you?”
“I love it,” I said and told him about the layers of the earth. I talked about Crust, its intricate patterns, when rocks are redistributed and deposited in layers through the geologic processes, its composition of alumino-silicates.”
He had put his elbows on the table and held his chin in his hands, trying to concentrate.
I went on to explain Mantle which is dense, hot layer of semi-solid rock 29,000 plus km thick, composed mainly of ferro-magnesium silicates and Core ….” I had got into classroom mode.
He raised his hand. ”Sorry, Ma’am. You’ve got a dull student. Most of it has gone over my head. Please tell me in simple words whether earthquakes can be prevented.”
“No. But those caused by human intervention in the environment can be reduced. Less fracking, I mean, extraction of gas, can decrease their occurrence. Natural causes like collision of Tectonic Plates are unavoidable.”
Then we switched to general topics like novels and politics. We also talked about Bollywood in which he was particularly interested..
On my way back in the taxi, I kept thinking of Papa. “Daksha, nobody will be happier than me if you choose someone to marry. But just one thing. Never ever marry a Christian. I hate this religion. It’s chauvinistic and fanatic. A Christian boy will kill you. I mean, he’ll convert you first and then marry. Conversion kills. You’re no longer the same person!”
During the week, we met daily. Talking to him was an unmixed joy. I began to look forward to the evenings. My sister-in-law smiled meaningfully, when I dressed and left home. On the sixth evening our rendezvous was L.A. Prime's 35th-floor perch among the skyscrapers of downtown, known for a fine dining experience and outstanding view of the city.
During the course of the discussion, he asked me, “Who all are there in your family?”
“My father, elder brother and I. Brother lives here in Los Angeles with his wife and a son.”
He grew reflective.
“What about you?”
“We’re also three. But I’m lonely,” said Mike.
“Don’t get you.”
“I, me and myself.”
We both laughed. I had got the hint and felt a strange sensation -- a mix of pleasure, thrill and worry.
Papa always got worked up while talking about Christianity. As it is, he suffers from high blood pressure and had to be hospitalized when Gagan broke the news about his conversion and his marriage to a Christian girl. It was ten years and Papa had not spoken a word with my brother. He would disconnect the phone whenever Gagan called him. Then my brother gave up.
I love Papa. Yet sometimes, I have a nagging thought, whether he was responsible for mother’s death. He was the traditional patriarch. He would not brook any opposition, much less criticism. Sometime, he would fly into a rage and shout. Mother would go quiet. Often for days on end.
We are flying to India and Mike is sleeping peacefully, with the serenity of a child. The plane bumps a couple of times, as it encounters air masses in the clouds through which it is passing. Mike lazily opens his eyes, gives me a smile, which I have come to adore, and goes back to sleep.
I am thinking of Papa.*** Note: This short story won the prize for the IWW Contest 2013. Prize sponsored by: Grammarly.comAbout the author:
Formerly, Associate Professor of English at University of Delhi, Dr. Subhash Chandra has published about 30 short stories in Indian and foreign journals and has also published four critical books, the latest being . He has presented research papers at conferences in Australia,Canada,Hong Kong,Israel, and Nepal,and has also guest edited a special issue (No.22) on ‘Women and Gender’ of Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, a refereed E journal published from Australian National University, Canberra.(Free access).He is on the Advisory Board of Intersections.