THAT SPRING a shadow fell over their marriage. When June came, they decided to leave Baroda for the summer and head north to Udaipur, in Rajasthan. The children, Suraj and Mohini, were going to spend the two months at Nisha’s mother’s house in Surat. The mother-in-law knew of the situation. She had screamed down the phone in some of the harshest language he had ever heard. She had never really liked him and the feeling was mutual, a sharp, blunt woman who found faults where none existed. And now, he had presented his head on a plate.
The children were caught in the middle when their only focus should have been on their exams. They were looking forward however to visiting their grandmother. Mohini planned to buy clothes and watch movies. Suraj was going to work at a diamond-polishing unit, save some money, for when his college started in September.
He drove them both in their red Maruti up to the coach station, parked and went inside carrying a suitcase. A haphazard queue had formed; people fanned themselves with newspapers as they sat by their multi-coloured bags and suitcases. A couple of kids yelled from the back as he wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. He stood next to Suraj, as his daughter found a seat to their side.
Nisha had not come; she cried and said goodbye to them back at the flat. She had added, ‘Mummy would join them very soon.’ Then she cried as if the pain of the past few months had burst in that parting moment. Mohini had hugged and cried too, and the children’s emotion had made him feel as guilty as hell. Mohini was in her mother’s camp, and since the news, had only uttered a few sullen sentences to him. Even now, she sat with her head stuck in a Stardust filmi magazine. At sixteen, she had set ideas about how fathers should be.
He now, handed the tickets to his son. Suraj on the other hand, two years older, tried to hide his disappointment by studying hard and spending time with his friends. He was aware that he had lost his father’s authority; he rubbed his short-cut black beard that had flecks of grey appearing.
‘Are you and mum going to divorce after Udaipur?’
‘No, no, who gave you that idea?’ he said, and noted his daughter’s head tilt towards them. ‘I mean we don’t want to, that’s why we are going. Just to be away from everyone, and you’ll be fine at your grandmother’s...what I’m trying to say, is that I know it’s been a difficult situation at home... I want to try and put that right.’
‘That’s going to be difficult...do you still love Mum?
‘Look...I’m not proud of what happened and I’m hoping that your mother, all of you, will forgive me in time. Your mother has a generous spirit. Look after your sister too, she’s upset with me now but I’m hoping she will be okay.’
He glanced at her but she was biting her lower lip and staring at the magazine. She wore blue jeans and a pink top; her wavy hair touching her shoulders and she hadn’t been reading. Before, she used to tell him everything; how her friends fought over boys, what she wanted to buy, how she hated school; so much conversation reduced to almost nothing. He took a step towards her but she looked sideways with reddened eyes.
‘Mohini, you take care too...and don’t worry, if you need anything, just phone, okay.’
She nodded without looking up; he wanted to give her a hug but knew it was no use. The white Volvo coach with Rama Travels printed along its side, rolled into the station. Tired limbs, sparked to life. People hurried as wary conductors stepped down, trying to keep order.
‘Goodbye and good luck,’ said Suraj, and gave the briefest of hugs before turning with tears forming in his sad eyes.
Mohini walked towards the coach without looking at him. He placed his hands inside his black trouser pockets and sighed. He hadn’t imagined all this, or how he would feel. He walked out and thought this wasn’t going to be easy at all. The drive home was one of the loneliest he had experienced.
Nisha sat in the front room staring at a family photo whilst she sipped her tea; taken three years ago, it showed them all standing in front of the Taj Mahal and smiling. Nisha’s eyes were swollen and her face a little puffy. Next to the sofa, two grey suitcases were packed.
‘I spoke to Mamma,’ she said. ‘I told her that the children were on the afternoon coach. Did it leave on time?’
‘Yes it did, not bad for Indian timing.’
‘It feels very lonely without the children...empty.’
‘They will be fine, they were looking forward to going.’
‘I don’t blame them, I really don’t blame them Amit.’
He winced and narrowed his eyes; she had made constant cutting remarks, in front of the children too. He had to take his punishment in small doses, perhaps for the rest of his life. It was embarrassing however in front of the kids, and a couple of times, it had led to intense arguments. He walked into the kitchen, drank a glass of water, and took the suitcases down to the car. He squeezed one in the back boot and placed the other on the back seat. Finally, things seemed in order.
The drive up to Udaipur would take around four hours, a 320 km stretch along the NH 8, and then through winding hill roads. He was looking forward to leaving as they served alcohol in Rajasthan. Gujarat was the only dry state in India, officially, though bootlegging had always flourished. He lit a cigarette. She seemed to be taking an age; he wondered if she was even coming down, as she hadn’t been keen on this break. He dragged on the cigarette, watched a stray mongrel totter down the road, sniffing at the edges and looking lifeless in the heat.
MOHINI’S English tutor first came to the flat last year. Sophia D’cruz was an Indian Christian, originally from Goa. Her family had settled in Baroda after her father found work as an I.T. Supervisor. She was twenty-eight, had Portuguese blood from her mother’s side, and was a tall, slim woman with a degree in English Literature from Pune.
After a few weeks, she read a short story of his that Mohini had shown; something he had written in his twenties. She had really liked it, a story about two brothers and their jealousy.
She had asked whether he had written any more. He had, several stories, before family life fell upon his shoulders. He dug them out from old boxes, looked at them and smiled. He could definitely improve them now, but he passed them to her and said they were not that good.
The following week, she said that he had a natural talent for telling stories. Then she had placed a pen to her full lips and asked puzzled, why he had stopped writing. The simple question threw him off balance. He mumbled something about becoming busy with work, but over the following weeks, the question caused a heartache.
His job as a life insurance broker had taken all his time, coupled with marriage and bringing up two children. He also knew however that many writers had it worse and had still gone on to succeed. No, the painful truth was that he had stopped following his dream. The lack of pay and success in the writing life had killed his high ambition; he wasn’t bitter about this, had perhaps accepted too easily that many writers don’t go on to make it. Maybe he just lacked the drive and determination.
Sophia suggested changes and improved the stories with her editing skills. One day she asked to discuss the stories at a cafe. He felt alive, the first time in years; he liked the way she sat in her dark blue dress, elbows on the table, with her chin resting on her clasped fingers with a slight tilt of her face. Her green eyes gazed directly into his, as he spoke. He realised what was happening but the attraction was too great.
One afternoon, as she lay clasped around him in a hotel room, she pushed her black hair from her face and said.
‘Amit...don’t laugh...I am in love.’
She shook slightly and he didn’t know how to react without sounding crass or indifferent.
‘I really wish you weren’t married. I hate it, hate it.’
‘Sophia, these things have a way of working out.’
‘I can’t see how it will... not without you leaving your wife.’
‘Don’t worry so much.’
‘That’s easy for you to say. I hate being the other woman.’
Then she had started to cry and said that she was crying because she didn’t know what to do. The guilt grew. She was right. Where were they heading? He couldn’t just leave his family, they had done nothing wrong, on the contrary loved and respected him. He felt like a new man and tacky as hell.
As he wondered what to do, Nisha discovered the affair, when he forgot to delete a text that Sophia had sent. He had normally been very careful about this, and when Nisha challenged him with tears running down her face, he told the truth. Tears, arguments and despair. Relatives became involved. Men privately pitied him, the women opened him to ridicule and disrespect. There was no hiding place.
Forced to choose, he finished with Sophia. She left for Goa and now for just over two months, his marriage had been hobbling along like a lame dog, filled with cruel taunts, anger and suspicion.
NISHA came out of the lift and walked around a concrete pillar. She wore a blue shalwar kameez that was a little tight and she hadn’t applied any make-up. He thought she might have made some effort.
‘What took you so long?’
‘Oh, I just wanted to have a good look around the place.’
‘Look Nisha, I know it’s been difficult but we can get through this...I really want us to.’
She sat in the car without replying, as he started the engine. She didn’t fold her hands in prayer and say Jai Ganesh, as she normally did at the start of a journey. He used to laugh at her superstitious ceremony, but today, somehow it bothered him. He turned the car, and saw a woman in a sari, walking towards them with a child on their right hand side.
‘That’s a lucky omen,’ he said.
‘Is it? When did you start to believe in lucky signs?’
‘You convinced me over the years.’
‘Really, I should have taught you how to remain faithful.’
‘Come on, let’s not argue before we even reach Udaipur.’
‘Mamma said this was a stupid idea...she has been telling me to file for a divorce and return to Surat.’
‘We’ve been over that Nisha...and we have to think about the children. They are really upset and are hoping we can work things out.’
‘Oh, silly me, I forgot, how you really remembered them when you were sleeping with that slut.’
She stared at the road, took quick breaths and tears ran down her face.
He wound down the window, but the warm June air gave no relief. There had been a shower earlier and the smell of damp dust filled the air. They drove in silence, and he again wondered at the wisdom of taking this break. Maybe it would have been better to take the children along, alone, the gaps seemed to widen between them.
At the state border, Police in khaki uniforms checked trucks coming into Gujarat, looking for drugs and alcohol. He felt tense as they crossed into Rajasthan, something about the border Police and their unreliability and temper. On this occasion, they didn’t even glance at their car.
Later, they stopped at a hotel and had some refreshments. Nisha looked composed now and seemed to take an interest at looking at the rugged landscape. He wondered how he was ever going to get close to his wife again. She hadn’t left in the spring because the children were preparing for their year-end exams. Sometimes he was glad about her anger and taunts; indifference would have been worse. He had to make sure that she had the best time on this break and that he tried his hardest to please her.
They reached Udaipur in the evening. He turned off the highway, drove along a winding road and parked in front of the rented bungalow. They stepped out of the car and Nisha said.
‘This is nice.’
His heart lifted, the first positive thing she had said in weeks.
‘The travel company said a lot of Americans rent this place in the winter.’
‘I hope it’s nice on the inside too,’ she said.
He climbed the steps with the suitcases, opened the door and turned on the lights. Nisha came inside, looked around the large front room and walked into the dining area. She opened the back doors and there was a wide veranda and a sloping lawn, and a clear view of the lake shimmering in the moonlight. A fresh breeze welcomed them as they stood staring at the lake with the bright city lights beyond.
‘What do you think?’
‘It’s beautiful Amit...I wish we could have come here before...’
They took in the view, then moved towards the bedroom. A double bed lay in the centre with new bed sheets. The white granite floor tiles were spotless but he knew what she was thinking.
‘You stay here Nisha, I’ll sleep on the sofa in the front room.’
She started to unpack her bag. He hoped then, that she might have asked him to share the bed, but that was expecting too much. When she remained silent, he had his answer.
OVER the next few days, they tried to settle in. They took trips to the bazaars, walked around the Shiv Nivas Palace and looked at the royal splendour of the Rajput city. Amit liked the steel armour and weapons of Maharana Pratap displayed in the museum; the famous 16th century Raja of Mewar, who had withstood the might of Akbar’s Mughal armies, and had managed to remain independent till the end.
They also found a good grocery shop and they had Ramu; the tour company employed him and he cleaned the bungalow daily and did odd jobs around the place. He was a slim young man with a toothy grin that widened whenever Amit gave him some money. Nisha started to relax as well and smile; everyday he thought his decision to come here a good one. They seemed to have time for one another at last. That night as they sat eating a hot fish curry with chapattis, he said.
‘I’m really glad to have this time with you Nisha. It’s good to be away from everyone. I know how difficult this has been for you and I can’t say sorry enough for all the hurt and humiliation I have caused.’
‘You have no idea. Everyone just pities me, and you know how much I hate pity.’
‘If I could just turn the clock back, I would.’
‘I don’t know if I believe that...we had such a nice family life and you spoiled it all for...what.’
‘I honestly don’t know why it happened, one thing led to another and I suppose I gave into temptation. All I ask is that you forgive me, that’s all I can ask.’
‘You ask for forgiveness as if it was some candy in a shop. If I had slept with another man, would you have forgiven me?’
A fish bone stuck in his throat, he coughed, drank some water and swallowed carefully.
‘Exactly, she added. ‘Just because you are a man, you expect us to forgive anything.’
‘Yes I know but we cannot carry on living like this...I mean we have to make an effort to save our marriage.’
‘After all the pain you have caused, am I still not here? It’s not going to be easy Amit, I need to think about myself now. I have spent all my life thinking about other’s happiness, it’s time I thought about me.’
She did not finish her meal, left the table and washed her hands. It left him feeling, well he wasn’t sure exactly. Then she phoned her mother from the front room. The children were fine. Suraj was working hard, had a talent for polishing diamonds and for being punctual. Mohini had gone to watch a movie, then he overheard her say that she was all right, that it had been a good idea to visit Udaipur. His despondency lifted.
It seemed that he was always between despair and hope, and that had been the case since spring. Not a good situation to be in; he was also fighting the strong urge to phone Sophia, especially in his moments of loneliness. Some days he thought to hell with everything. It was no big deal in today’s times; just move in with her and start a new life. Then he would feel a hypocrite and guilty again.
The next day, Nisha seemed happier. He thought it was a good day as any to buy her some expensive gold earrings. They drove to the market, passing men wearing multicoloured turbans and women in saris, and found a jewellery store. The gold sets glittered behind the glass counters in the air-conditioned shop.
‘Why have we come here?’
‘Do you like those earrings Nisha...look those with the bell shape and little bearings?’
‘Very good quality Bhenji,’ said the shop owner. ‘Latest fashion, no obligation to buy, please try them on.’
‘We can’t afford those.’
‘Try them Nisha, I’d like you to have them.’
‘No, no, I can’t,’ she said smiling, then tried them on.
She looked in the mirror, turned her head; he could tell she liked them by the way her eyes lit up. He was nervous however, if she didn’t accept this gift, it meant he had little chance in winning her over. She took the best part of an hour, trying on other designs; then she picked the first ones, she had tried on an hour earlier. The man gave them a ten percent discount, but he would have bought them even without the discount.
‘Is it Bhenji’s birthday?’
‘Yes,’ he said lying.
‘Then we wish her good fortune for the year ahead. We wish you both good luck and please come again.’
Amit smiled, liked the words, though he understood it was only customer service. They planned to have lunch the next day at the famous Lake Palace Hotel and to have a boat ride. She protested that they couldn’t afford such extravagance but he reassured her that they could. It seemed like the old times again, and he felt the most happy that day.
Later in the evening, whilst he sat drinking a cool beer, she turned and shook her head. She had become serious the moment they had reached the bungalow, and now she stared at the lake and shook her head again.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘It’s no good,’ she said. ‘It’s just no good. I am sorry Amit...I have been thinking about us all this while and I don’t want the gold earrings. I don’t want to visit the Lake Palace with you. I want to return to my mother’s house and I want to see the children, alone. I miss the children.’
‘We can head back in the weekend if you like, what’s the rush?’
‘No, I’m going tomorrow. I feel empty inside, betrayed...I can’t forgive what you have done....I’ve tried and tried but I can’t. I don’t know how other women find the strength to do so. I no longer trust you and I don’t want to live a life together like that.’
‘Please don’t say that. We can get through this.’
‘I’m sorry, I can’t.’
‘You were always very stubborn Nisha. You will regret it one day,’ he said and felt bad for saying it.
‘We’ll see who regrets what,’ she said wiping her eyes with the end of her dupatta. ‘Right now, I am going to my room, I am exhausted. We had such a nice family, and you decided to ruin it all. Well you can have her now.’
She hurried into the bedroom. He lit a cigarette on the veranda. The hills to his right were tinged with a deep sad orange glow; crickets chirped mercilessly as a cool breeze swept across the lake. Sadness filled his heart and he felt like crying for the first time in years. He bit his lower lip, hard. Then the moment passed.
Things had been going too easy. He threw the cigarette away, rose and moved towards the door. A loud flapping of wings forced him to turn around. Two peacocks had flown into the lawn.
The peacock spread its long green feathers in an arc and started to strut in front of the peahen. The peacock held its poise, fine feathers with the false deep blue eyes printed amongst them. He walked inside and opened the bedroom door. Nisha was packing her suitcase.
‘Quick,’ he whispered. ‘You have to see this.’
She came out reluctantly and they both stood on the veranda. He placed a tentative arm around her, as she watched wide-eyed at the merry courtship dance. The peacock moved back and forth, swaying its feathers in the evening light.
‘Oh Amit, it’s so beautiful.’
‘It’s a sign from the Gods, we will get through this.’
‘How happy they both look.’