Note: Written as a poetic tribute to Emma Bovary, the voluptuous, beautiful, forlorn heroine of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, also later adapted into an Indianized version in Ketan Mehta’s film ‘Maya Memsaab’.
A whiff of smoke brewing in her eyelashes,
A touch of the wet earth, her body, a failed, blurred mantra of desire.
Only in the dusk settling beneath the hills, she returns home
To the smothered fairy tales of her body, looking for the salt
When her husband might have kissed her many light years ago.
Her moon flesh, her pale, eager hands, the blood, coursing through her veins
Restless, settles in vain, in the familiar smells of a solicitous husband.
The homecoming, for a nomadic soul, is only true when she decodes herself
Undresses, flinging herself in her lovers’ arms, kisses their soft, velvet mouths
Turning as the slutty Madame in the amorous nights, a ripened woman
Pressing against the barbed wire fence of the provincial life, her marital gift.
In the opera, the fangs of her passion unfold, like birth pangs,
The smoked particles of lust, the perfumed ghosts of erotic cravings,
The gusty winds of music and the symphony,
Digging deep into her panting breath.
Is she a nymph, darting through the infinite darkness of a conjugal silence
That hangs around her neck like a noose, choking her voice,
The intent adrenaline rush that erupts in spurts?
Why does she need her giant share of lovers, long to be torn asunder
Dissolve in their wanton dreams in her dark luster, turning ashen, forlorn
With every lavish affair, with every adulterous escapade
That she thinks, would salvage her, giving wings to her romantic fancies?
Vain woman, adultery is the rain that bursts forth from a littered sky,
Don’t you know the sacrilege of baring open, elsewhere than your own home?
Didn’t you know, when you had waltzed, your sweet scent
Crushing against your partner’s musk, all this was a prelude to a glaring nemesis,
A nemesis where feeling embittered, lost was your only truth,
By all the men you had given yourself to?
In the burning fumes of death, her being dissolves, and resounds
Much like the lovelorn raindrops that would pelt on the precincts of the estate,
In the arms of death, her caramel being is tossed and turned,
Just as in the arms of life, she had craved to be caressed, blossoming,
Rising and ebbing in her blasphemous wants.
[Inspired by the elemental image of Draupadi/Panchali, the undisputed heroine of the epic Mahabharata, depicted in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s masterpiece of a novel, ‘Palace of Illusions’.]
Panchali, I am, to you, my Partha, my love,
Painfully displaced in recycled domestic patterns
Circulated freely amid all your brothers and you.
The saint who determined my cycle between one coy bride
To the next had created enough music in my bones
To satiate all you Pandavas as equal husbands,
Though he never knew how trapped
My luminous smile had been,
My dark-skinned charm, colliding
with so much of your chivalrous cacophony.
Panchali, I am, to you, my valiant Bheemsen,
A luscious lilac that you craved to engrave
In your voluminous heart, never knowing
How the absence of light rustled in my bare form,
My deep, dark tresses, shedding its rhythmic dewdrops
Not in unconditioned love, but in stoic, formulaic surrender.
Panchali, my Dharmaraaj, I am to you,
The untamed fire that spread all over you, in spurts,
The easiest pawn you could have settled for,
Reckless, warped in a gambling spree
you could very well do without.
Did I burn you too, my cognac fire
Was it a bit too scalding, Nakul and Sahadev,
My youngest husbands, moving in the orbit
Of your elder brothers’ wants? Did you get
How my splinters and shards surrounded you
In a vain rapture in the palace of illusions
When all I waited for, perhaps, was the Mahaprasthan,
The final journey of my nemesis, with all five of you,
Following the slit throats and mashed up corpses
Of my sons, of our kith and kin?
Panchali, I am, to you, Karna, my all-pervading bruise.
For I had forgot, in spite of your irresistible musk
That you and me both were wiggling children
of the cracked earth. The fiery flashes of your pride
Matching my own insolence, had borne a cursed utterance,
‘Sutaputra’, my vanity had attested a lie, a lie that resounded
Every time we crossed paths, as a rhythmic reminder.
Panchali, I am, to you, my Sakha, Krishna,
The smoke and fury of my mind’s badland
Soothed from time to time, when your hands touched mine.
What magic did your words unfold
To this dark, forlorn child-woman,
As you hovered in my life, presiding over its queer equations?
Dream girl, I wasn’t for you, when disrobed,
shunned of my womanly honour, your drapes covered
my bruised, black moon. Your words revealed,
Like half-shining flashlights, draped my life
In the ambiguous sheen I myself couldn’t fathom well.
Here, you touch my hands yet again, for one last time,
Where I find myself beyond the rims of time, and tell me
I have played my part well in this chaotic and tumultuous play.
Is this a new beginning, where I dissolve and form anew?
Panchali, I am, look, the boundless sky, my new palace, engulfs us all.
Filled with vivid, veritable expressions, descriptions connoting the joie de vivre of life in its small, yet discerning moments, Santosh Bakaya’s treasure trove of 58 essays in ‘Flights From My terrace’ comes across as a remarkable odyssey of childhood memories, nostalgia, and a vivid internal journey capturing universal human feelings. The journey of these essays combined together in an unforgettable mosaic, in her own words, is “the outcome of my ruminations on my terrace” of her snug, cozy Jaipur home, a home which pulls her away to the other homes and their assorted images, homes and realms she has inhabited with her memories, opening the doors to her idyllic childhood, replete with delight, loss, wonder, and bewilderment cried to be put into words.
Bakaya, the amazing storyteller, essayist and poet extraordinaire attains catharsis and makes perfect sense of the hubris of her mind and the memory chaos by documenting and depicting a series of diverse complex emotions in the book, starting from the exuberance of flying kites to the reminiscence of the sweet nothings of an idyllic Kashmir of her childhood to being a mother to delving in the other metaphorical truths of her life. Hers is a Bedouwin (nomadic) heart inside which churns the quicksilver flash of memories, and splashes across the zigzag crannies of the terrains she touches now, hungering, wreaking havoc.
In spite of the deeply synesthetic appeal of the flow of her words, never once does her sea of thoughts from Kashmir to Bharatpur feel too exhausting for the readers to handle. She has them always in her stride as she is in complete grip of her narration, whether she is depicting the romancing of sacred whispers, the sweet resonance of birds chirping, the sudden burst of the cacophonous world, or her untiring, persistent interaction with strangers and serendipity. Like a true memoirist and a flawless essayist, she absorbs the readers full on in the immediacy of her subtle life experiences, eclipsing everything else with the earnestness and the lyrical candor of a loving heart.
Yes, undoubtedly memories and their essence form the core and crust of ‘Flights from My Terrace’. The fervor with she describes her journey from Bharatpur to Jaipur in the essay ‘The Persistence of Memory’ as “…a chunk of memory here, a sliver of memory there,” forming “a memory avalanche” is truly remarkable and unforgettable. Also, one cannot help but reminisce the beauty and power Bakaya inscribes to the seemingly inconsequential subjects, like the neem tree of her childhood, the family dog, Nipper, the cat, Lazy, among other things, and all of them are incorporated so endearingly into the narrative that they echo in the minds of the readers like a delightful, richly woven symphony, long after they finish reading the book.
“I did not have to make any conscious effort, these slivers of memory just erupted from the subterranean depths, fitting into the narrative smoothly.” She said in an interview where I had asked her about the effortlessness and ease of her narrative journey in the book. The passages about her scholar father, her loving grandmother and other members of her kith and kin come together as delightful chunks of the unforgettable mosaic of her narration, along with all her other lyrical encounters that form the crux of the book.
The takeaway from ‘Flights of Terrace’ to a discerning lover of literature is the use of language, tender, lyrical yet robust and poignant, the pervasive and spirited voice of Bakaya as the narrator, the crisp, almost meditative beauty of her prose. To all who love powerful stories centered on the meaning and essence of home and one’s memories and nostalgia that spills over, spreads around the idea of home, childhood and the engrossing facets of humanity, this book will remain a cherished, treasured read always.
“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you/You must
travel it by yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach/Perhaps you have been on it since
you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere—on water and land.”
–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Watch out for the journey of my book THWARTED ESCAPE in Youtube as it transforms from a Journey awards winning manuscript to a published book and an Honorable Mention awardee at the LA Book Festival 2017.
#booktrailer, #youtubevideo, #bookpromotion, #Goodreads
Note: ‘Second Skin’, the prose poem is one of the winning poems based on a photo prompt contest hosted by the vibrant literature group in Facebook, The Significant League. The photograph, a seething document emphasizing on the crass and ruthless impacts of our urban civilization, had been taken and shared by the prolific Indian author, Dr. Santosh Bakaya.
What is the road made of, when we wait, deep, eager, in the tail-end of its sooty flesh?
The dirt is our pixie dust, the molecules of our tainted breaths traipsing with the smoke, swirling in the summer of smells. For ages, we wait, in the clogged pores of the city streets, clenching our calloused fists, our crooked teeth.
The streets become our cradles, rocking us in its high-pitched sopranos. We know the glittering place where the horns screech and trample the silence of our waiting, a waiting with its high and low notes, a waiting in its repetitive rhythms.
A waiting which becomes a clenched metaphor, telling our tale of rags and our smudged brown skins, our soiled faces that slap you hard, slap your conceited words, your vanilla-scented clothes, your practiced complacency.
Ah, this street now, at some uncertain end of the labyrinthine maze, stares in our faces. We flop down, inhale the putrid air, soaked with stories like that of ours, stashed away, nonchalant.
This street now, our second skin, is the rhetoric of our unnamed home as we slip into its monstrous bed, sucking full throttle, from its blackened, emaciated nipples.
Hey baby, suck on, why worry when the earth’s crust is but an unzipped black pit, an ashen pasture when you can roll around in the dirt and lick its fevered heat, running your little fingers over it when the blackness bleeds?
Hey baby, clap, clap, clap in your silver swirl as the thumping in our chests turn into a rhythmic chanting. Let our black foams squashed under the car tires be the thick wash of blood between all things terribly shiny and white.
Let them stop in their tracks for once, in their white skins and made up hair, grabbing the flesh of this cul-de-sac where we now squat, sculpting the pathos, the bare-boned poetry of the city street.
All Rights Reserved. Lopa Banerjee. March 3, 2017.
P.S. The other winners of this contest are Geethanjali Dillip, Bhuvaneshwari Shivkumar Sharma, Fatima Afshan and Rahul Ahuja.
1857 DUST OF AGES VOL 1:
A FORGOTTEN TALE
1857. The rebellion erupts in India. Despite its attempts to stay aloof, NAVGARH, a small town near Delhi, is drawn into the conflagration. And at its heart are Princess Meera and Captain Richard Smith, with their strange alliance made for the throne of Navgarh.
2016, Shiv Sahai, a young Indian art historian and Ruth Aiken, a British scholar discover an excerpt from the journal of an anonymous British soldier, searching for his wife in the chaos of 1857 Delhi. As they begin investigating the scandal, they become aware of the vague rumours that are told in the bylanes of Navgarh – about a princess who married a British soldier to save her kingdom.
Read an excerpt from the book…
Camp, Delhi Cantonment, 16 August, 1857.
Things have changed forever. A day spent in the company of my old friend Knox made it clear. These distances can never be bridged.
The pole of his tent snapped in the storm yesterday; and for the sake of old friendship, I offered Knox my humble abode. But his rancour was jarring. His determination to teach the enemy a lesson, the unshaken belief in the rightness of our mission– such bitterness asks too much of friendship and duty.
Earlier we went over the battlefield. One of our regiments was destroying the village near the bridge to prevent the enemy from getting cover in it. Elephants were pulling down the walls. The villagers stood by as their houses turned into mud while the monsoon clouds gathered on the horizon. Unfortunately, they were the Jats, who, for the most part, are our friends. We decided that the destruction of their homes and fields was necessary. Twenty-three men – their countrymen – were lying together in the ditch at the back of the village; we weren’t sure if they were the rebels. A party of Rifles killed then en masse, just to be sure.
We left the village with our bags swollen like raisins in water. And who can blame our light-fingered gentry? Armies are said to travel on their stomach.
At some distance from our camp, I can see the sun setting over the fort of Delhi. It isn’t much different from the first sunset I witnessed here years ago. How things have changed! We came with a mission – to know this exotic land, to bring the light of knowledge and civilization to its darkness. Now the memory leaves me embarrassed. These massive red walls made me uneasy even then. Today they mock our camp again. Whatever be the outcome of this devil’s wind, it has revealed the banality of our mission.
Knox’s bitterness is an expression of the anger in the camp. When the cannons are quiet, the silence resounds with confusion, with terror, with rage, but most of all with the question ‘Why?’ As we sit around a small fire every night, the question rages in every mind. ‘Why the mutiny? Haven’t we brought the glory of civilization to this land of superstition?’ These thoughts simmer as we deal with hunger, heat and rain.
But soon these questions will be forgotten. The winners will annihilate the other side. Already I see the madness in the eyes as rumours reach us from other places – Cawnpur, Jhansi, Lucknow. Madness will soon be let loose.
I often feel that the answers that elude me today were within my grasp a short while ago. They are somewhere near, yet unreachable, like the time gone by.
I promise to look for them once I have found her again. For she, I feel, holds a part of it.
So every evening, I try to escape this madness by thinking about her, Princess Meera of Navgarh, a rebel soldier and my wife. It is the third year of our marriage. Three years of tenuous links and fragile understanding. It was only a matter of time before an explosion happened. And it happened that eventful week when Navgarh too burnt in the fire raging all across India. The news that the sepoys in Meerut had rebelled spurred both of us. Did I expect Meera to be a dutiful wife when all her beliefs, her convictions pulled her in the opposite direction? Was I surprised on knowing that she was in Delhi, amongst the rebels? Would she be surprised on knowing that I have followed her as an enemy… a British officer? And as I follow her, I stand here once again, after five years, outside the walls of the Red Fort in Delhi.
About the author
Delhi-born Vandana Shanker is the author of the series 1857 Dust of Ages, a historical fiction set in the year of the great uprising in India. A PhD from IIT Delhi, Vandana is passionate about history, storytelling and art. Apart from writing, she teaches literature and creative writing in Malaysia. She has also taught in Universities in India and Vietnam. She currently lives in Kuala Lumpur with her family and wants to travel the world.
Stalk her @
“Distance and memory are uneasy twins. As one advances, the other gallops in an interminable contest of catch up. This fraught relationship is at the heart of Lopamudra Banerjee’s memoir. The tension begins with the book’s title itself – Thwarted Escape – an oxymoron if you will, yet one that makes sense as the reader starts journeying through its pages.
The book’s four sections – on childhood, womanhood, motherhood, and life and death – reminded me of flower arrangements – of their evanescence, their beauty. Banerjee, the florist, crafts delicate narratives as she pulls them towards a theme bunch. She uses the present tense to a delicious effect, pulling the reader into the immediacy, and hence, the momentariness of her experiences. The beauty results from her love of language – the carefree abandon with which words spill onto the page. Then there’s the fragrance running through the sections – the author’s constant introspection, a memoirist’s greatest tool. And often her biggest risk.”
It is my pleasure to share an overwhelming review of my book ‘Thwarted Escape: An Immigrant’s Wayward Journey’ written by the brilliant writer/translator Bhaswati Ghosh, published at Cafe Dissensus journal, New York. Do read the full review here, friends.
A naughty sip of sunshine kissed her pouted lips as her eyes looked far, far below at the sun-kissed dome, the long, defiant tower with its crane-like neck housing curious visitors of the city in its esophageal tract. The voluptuous sculptures, the fountains yet to squirt their orgasmic waters, seen from afar, filled her with a desire to open up with spurts of gushing, forbidden rain. The streets of San Antonio, Texas bore the remnants of the last night’s copulation with the Christmas lights, everywhere the happy star dusts of a faded, died out light of the earth blinked, as if inviting her enormous trailing memories and yearnings. The throngs of passion broiled, dying till their finishing embers as she woke up, disembodied, groggy from sleep and the night’s own coercion into a practiced, empathized, mutual intimacy.
Slowly, diligently, she shoved herself away from the crumpled bed and stood up to walk a few feet to reach the giant, wall-to-wall transparent glass door of their hotel room that overlooked the city’s bustling downtown. There, the illuminating Christmas lights and music had created a heady concoction the previous night as they came back from their indolent strolls from the Market Square, the quaint Mexican market and the tourist’s hub, the cascading Riverwalk.
“Let’s raise a toast to our new beginnings, my wife, and a happy new year to be merry and blessed.” Neil had touched his glass of margarita to hers and made a clinking sound, which converged with the music being played in the local pub-cum-restaurant, the symphony spilling over the place.
In the fresh morning sun, Shalini looked down at the floor right next to the bed where her flip-flops, her silk blouse, her red, flowing skirt, her silken lingerie lay scattered since the wee hours of the night. She couldn’t remember if it was Neil who undressed her, layer after layer, as he would often do, or if she had done it herself. All she could remember, following the hangover of the previous night was that he had untied her hair and caressed its strands, each stroke of his finger awakening a bruised, pent up libido within her as the tears in her eyes eclipsed everything around her in the silhouetted darkness of the room like a thick, unforgiving mist.
Was it a tiny flickering of a being, a struggling embryo that died in its mother’s inviting womb yet again, gushing out in clotted blood and crushed, maimed flesh?
Was it a soft, rainy dream, trampled yet again from the ruthless remembrance of a life she had lived, as if in a previous birth?
Was it that dangerous liaison of years back, rearing its ugly face, when all that she had brought along with her as she ran away from it relentlessly was a breathless, deadening terror? Was it the terror of being slashed, the terror of kicking feet and abusive fists, the terror of the bulging walls of a dream that came crashing down, yet again?
What was she thinking in the waning moonlight that glimmered in the languid waters of the Riverwalk as she sat at the patio of the restaurant? What did she say to Neil, looking unmindful at the other tourists who came to dine out, holding a lobster tail dipped in garlic butter in one hand, while with her other hand, she grabbed the glass of Margarita, wishing to crush the glass to shards till her palms bled to death? She didn’t remember. She only remembered that a loose, waxy dribble hung from her mouth as she chewed on the food, one that housed memories, slanted truths, all drowning under the bottomless pit of her mouth.
Threadbare, barely out of the clumsy wraps, she wandered amid the ruffled skin of the clowns on the streets she has stalked the previous evening in her little pursuit of happiness. She thought of spooning out the thick cream out of the pie with the fork dangling in her cold hands that she remembered with queer, practiced clarity as she roamed amid the humming semblance of the relics she might have visited in some previous birth. And as she sat in the ferry amid unknown faces, relishing the placid waters of the Riverwalk, she hummed the lyrics of a dead singer-composer’s songs, reverberating in the air bustling with conceited human cacophony and charbroiled animal meat.
In the deadly quiet of her hotel room in the twentieth floor, it was all about silence and waiting–a long, silhouetted wait to sleep sublime under the cocoon of thousand unknown stars in a faraway galaxy, stars who do not know the tainted flesh of the humans. Late into the night, the game of thrones between two bodies had scoured the arid air inside the room, the body of an Adam and Eve of the spoiled, betrayed earth.
For once, she longed to tumble down, far, far below the wall-to-wall stained-glass door and see her naked, unbound soul go out to hug her nemesis, to touch and grip the utmost rim of her life. For once, she longed to plant a long, wet, last undying kiss on the dribbling mouth of her man fumbling with the used bedsheets in his sleep. She glanced at him with the corner of her kohl-smeared eyes, as she longed to smash open the stained-glass door with a gash of her bleeding wrists, to slide down the expanse of the building, falling down, violent, headlong, in the vortex, waiting with sure, steadfast arms, waiting to engulf her in an avalanche of sleep.
As always, Neil did not sense the first changes that sprouted in Shalini’s mind. As a norm, he should have been the first to notice them. But his pretty, ‘eccentric’ wife moved through her days in an unperturbed stance, her hair dangling in loose, dark brown curls on both sides of her shoulders as he came back from work, wishing in his mind to love her some more, but ending up not displaying his affection. He didn’t always know how her mind was cutting through, traversing in dangerous directions. Neil, on his part, lovingly relished the affectionate licks and hugs of their pet dog Bruno, the moment he would fling open the door. He would see only her frantic, squirrel-like movements all around the house, quietly inhaling the steam from the coffee being brewed on the cooktop, and the wafting aroma of her strong feminine essence that he recognized as he entered their domestic domain.
Did he know since the first year of their wedded life in the quiet, suburban town of Texas which became their home, that she was strumming her obsessive thoughts in the deep, innermost recesses of her mind? Did he know the dormant volcano inside her when she peeled potatoes or onions in their kitchen, worked on simple dinners of chicken and rice, when she vacuumed the carpets, or bought home her choicest vegetables from the farmers’ market? Or did he care less? Because when the two bodies brushed against each other, exploding, contracting, towering above each other in the dark, frenzied bed as they made love to each other in the messiest, yet most delicately loving way, and he savored all her feminine juices, all he thought then was that there was a glimmering, inviting light at the end of the tunnel, one that would suck away the most debilitating abyss that she sometimes surrendered to?
…… “So, for how long would you say such things have been going on with her?”
At the psychiatrist Dr. Jones’ plush office cabin, Neil sat, suddenly cautious of the urgency of his visit, woken from the stupor of his momentary daze following the long wait.
“I told you already, she had an abusive past, and she had a really hard time, struggling with it, and breaking herself free from it…I should have…I should have noticed it a bit earlier, I think.” Neil replied.
“Hmm, I see some of that in the case study my assistant had prepared, and it is quite common too, to have a history of this sort, for manic depressive patients that we see on a regular basis…but yes, in your wife’s case, she seems to be acutely sensitive.”
“First thing, can you tell me how is her equation with her family? Anyone in her family except you, with whom she has had a painful history? What do you think?”
“Shalini, my wife is the only child of her parents, born in Delhi, India. Her mother had succumbed to kidney failure in India quite some years back, and life was difficult back there with her alcoholic father. She had a godmother in Delhi, an entrepreneur woman named Ms. Padamsee who had introduced her to Rajesh, her first husband in a local jalsah, a poetry reading and musical event of sorts, in Delhi. After a few meetings in regular intervals, she had thought of Rajesh as the antidote to all her pain at home. He appeared to be a sweet-talker, and had his ways with women. Also, he owned a corporate event management company in Houston, so he was quite well-off, financially. They didn’t wait for much long after the courtship. Her godmother arranged for a quick registry marriage and she flew away to the US as soon as she arranged for her visa in the country.”
“I can understand…I bet she was lured, and why not! So, do you know if she tried to get in touch with her family, or her father in India after her husband started abusing her?”
“It was of no use, actually. In fact, her father is in this country now, for the past four years, and seldom visits her. He married Ms. Padamsee, her fairy Godmother, who was no more a fairy now, and they both moved to Connecticut soon after. The last time I had got in touch with them was to invite them both for our wedding, and a Thank You card reached my home, along with a gift card from Macy’s. That was the end of it all.”
“That is sad….Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to ask you if you think something in the recent past might have triggered her sudden neurotic phase?”
Neil paused a bit. “Ummmm, not very recent though, but she had a miscarriage, quite a traumatic one, before she separated from her first husband, and she….she remarried…me.”
“Hmmm, I see….so does she speak of it to you? Or get hyper-sensitive?”
Neil nodded his head in assertion, gulping a steady influx of unsaid words, words which he would perhaps gather and break, construct and deconstruct, striving to know the rumbling, pent up thunder that was Shalini’s world.
“And also, may I ask, have you both as a couple thought of having a baby after all this? Now that you have been married for over two years?”
“Yes, we have…we have discussed this, quite a number of times….” He stammered a bit.
Some weeks back, when he had parked his car in their garage in a rather quiet, chilly winter evening, the loud, erratic barks from Bruno echoing from a distance seemed a tad bit unfamiliar. As he walked into the passage leading to the family room, the dog was in tatters, distressed and lost, literally dragging him to the far end of the passage which led to the main bedroom. There, in the hardwood floor, between the space of the dresser and the bed, she lay, her long tresses disheveled, her eyes loosely shut, with crystal drops of tears coating the corners of her eyes, streaming down her cheekbones. She sweated profusely in her sleepwear, which was the first thing which struck Neil as he stooped down to touch her, and then, discovered the whitish, semi-liquid discharges spilling from her mouth, all the way to the nape of her neck.
“Oh God, she must have thrown up a bit, just a while back”, he said to himself as Bruno started to scratch on some sticky remnants scattered on the floor where she lay.
“Shalu, sweetheart, wake up! What did you do to yourself, you crazy girl? See, I am back home! Look at me for once, damn it!” He had blurted out.
In the wooden dresser to their left, the container of her blood pressure medicines and a number of other medicines she took lay, angled, the lids opened. He looked at the remaining number of the pills, mocking the tumbled down promises of trust, love and the life-long companionship with which they had vowed to each other the day Shalini had come to his two-bedroom apartment in Sugar Lane, Houston, burying her face in his inviting chest, desperately pleading him to arrange for her divorce, so that she could free herself from that scumbag of a husband, Rajesh. He had felt an inexplicable chill climb up his spine with her tight, cozy embrace, sweetly teasing him before the torrents broke open in that deep, sultry July evening almost three years back.
“It doesn’t rain in Delhi, the way it does here.” She said.
“Well, it doesn’t rain in Durgapur, my hometown too, the way it does here.” He replied. An alien rain with a familiar promise would unite them some day soon, they prayed together.
He knew in his heart of hearts, since the night they had met each other in the news year’s eve party at Rajesh’s furnished condo where Shalini moved around, awkward, with submissive, cat-like steps following her husband’s commands, that she was a lost soul, stuck in that quagmire of a home that was not really hers. He would whisper in her ears months later, in one of their passionate, clandestine weekly meetings that one day, if he could claim her absolutely, they would set their new house built together, brick by brick, on fire. The fire that would consume both of them on a high tide night, when they would drown in each other’s essence.
….He raced up to dial 911 and call the emergency. “There has been a medicine overdose…yes, my wife. We need to save her, quick.”
“You bring me good news from the clinic,
Whipping off your silk scarf, exhibiting the tight white
Mummy-cloths, smiling: I’m all right.
When I was nine, a lime-green anesthetist
Fed me banana-gas through a frog mask. The nauseous vault
Boomed with bad dreams and the Jovian voices of surgeons.
Then mother swam up, holding a tin basin.
O I was sick.
They’ve changed all that. Traveling
Nude as Cleopatra in my well-boiled hospital shift,
Fizzy with sedatives and unusually humorous,
I roll to an anteroom where a kind man
Fists my fingers for me. He makes me feel something precious
Is leaking from the finger-vents. At the count of two,
Darkness wipes me out like chalk on a blackboard. . .
I don’t know a thing.”
Gazing at the pages of her favorite Sylvia Plath’s book of poems, she lay in her bed, beneath the bland linoleum ceiling, the lonely, cryptic walls of her room in the hospital engulfing her, tearing her into shards and bits…Did her story begin in the night of her nuptial bed four years back on that grey, permissive December night in that lodge in Noida where, in between the rough, unburdening crests of sex, she thought she had been one with her man, Rajesh? Her man, who would revere her, nurture her like the sacred touch of the wine he had made her sip from his glass?
“This is the best birthday present I could have ever asked for, Minal masi!” She had splashed her long, curly hair around Ms. Padamsee’s gleeful cheeks and bid her goodbye, along with the handful of other wedding guests and slid under the plush cocoon of the lemon-froth curtains of the hotel room where the man, her new husband watched her peeling away, bit by bit, pouncing at her, laughing.
Did her story begin in the following spring of the next year, when she flew all the way to the United States, crossing the anonymous crowd, grasping in her palm the frothy bubbles of the promise of a new light inside her that was flickering inside her queasy stomach?
Inside the banquet hall of a very posh convention center at Herman Park, Houston, where the classy corporate guests of Rajesh were busy raising toasts to their own symphony, she had turned down the glass of Bloody Mary.
“You know, I am six weeks pregnant. I was dying to tell you, but checked myself. If I did, you wouldn’t have allowed me to fly all alone from India.” She had said, wrapping her arms around Rajesh’s neck as he started to crouch on the bed beside her.
“What? So soon? Are you sure it’s ours, and do you want to keep it?” She remembered him frowning, irritation flickering over his face as she tried hard to gobble the first hard chunks of the truths surrounding him and her moorings in the pale, yellow light of the room.
He had crushed her, trampled over her night-gown, tearing it apart, as her petit frame lay in the middle of all his cussing, temperamental, hysteric bouts, pleading to him in the obscure dark of the bedroom where his kinks, his fetishism spilled all over her. She wondered if her story began when he would suddenly come home early in the evenings, with pink and white roses and a resplendent diamond ring for her, looking at her middle finger with awe as they splurged on exotic seafood in that new restaurant in town. Those were also the dimly lit evenings when she waited for him to come back, drunk, stroking her nape and digging his fingernails deep in her skin. “Bitch…one hell of a bitch. You’re only my bitch.”He would shout, vain, irrelevant.
What were the people that surrounded him in his whims, she wondered, when he bent over to kiss her hair, and then, burst open in a sudden fury?
“Who is it that your hair smells of? Having fun, you whore, when I am not home?”
“You know it’s not true, Rajesh. I work from home and do not go anywhere without you.”
The deep beige walls, the milky white of the window blinds and the murky red of the designer curtains creaked with her hollow shrieks. She had been a doll of his twisted desires, a doll with the perfect pout and the thick, mascara-laden eyelashes which housed her burnt-out days, days when she woke up to his obsessive compulsive wants, days when her limbs, her torso, her abdomen and her loins strained with the pain of bearing the seed of his obsessive wants that he had fostered inside her, in the name of matrimony and the sweet seduction of a sanctioned love. Then one day, in a violent daybreak, the seed, almost a half-grown fruit inside her, spilled out of her in bursts of blood.
“It cannot be mine, it is never mine, you bitch! In every party I take you to, in every party I host at home, you have to catch the eyes of a man and flirt with him, eh? You just used me as your easy ticket to fly away from your filthy, middle-class home, didn’t you?”
His vehement kicks and rash shoving, slapping hard at the lyrics she had woven with him in the narrow alleyways of suburban Delhi, had sliced through the half-formed body of a cursed embryo, breaking it into splinters and shards.
The next day, Rajesh had come to visit her in the hospital. He held her pale, fragile hand and kissed the diamond on her middle finger again, convincing her that it was he who had admitted her, after all, begging of her to forgive his drunk, disastrous aberrations, give her one last chance. She lay there, groggy, scraped off, not knowing how long she would have to grit her teeth and hold on to whatever semblance of sanity she still had within her.
…………….Was it the smell of the fresh beige paint of the walls yet again, two years later, in the quiet suburban home that Shalini had built with Neil in Plano, Texas, as she discovered, working with her books piled up, working with the soapy bubble of the dishwater, that yet another seed was sprouting in her body? Would it be the true token of her deep, basal yearning to live, shedding her morbidity aside, she wondered. Bruno, the pet dog wagged his tail and smelled her belly, as if sensing an omen, while she washed him clean in the bathroom, craving for some fleeting moments to dance to the music being played amid the sweet household mess.
“You are finally mine, Shalu. What would be the first thing that you would wish for, in our new life together, tell me?” Neil has asked as they had roamed, carefree, hand-in-hand amid the gentle sea breeze in Galveston island near Houston, guilt-free, elevated with the dream of their togetherness for the first time since Neil had met her in the presence of Rajesh as one of his ex-clients.
“To get the hell out of this city, and make a home in another part of this state, or a different state, for that matter.”
“You know what, I just had this surprise for you! I had applied in a few places since the court proceedings of your separation was going on, and just got an offer from an insurance company in Plano, near Dallas. What do you think, we should move there?”
“Yes, it’s about time we do that, maybe.” She said, with a sweet, lingering sigh.
“Okay, your highness.” He had replied.
Shalini still felt the sweet tug of that moment, with the sea purring like a naughty pet cat, the music, the pull of the sand beneath her toes, as the salt still stung in her eyes. She had never again visited the island after this. Her divorce with Rajesh, obtained with the help of one of Neil’s friends in Houston, now a thing of her past, choked her at times like a sudden siren rushing on in the distance. But Neil had often, in the bed and in the other rooms and beyond, spoken about, wanted to usher in new beginnings, despite being shut out from his orthodox Bengali family in Durgapur, India for marrying a divorced north-Indian woman, almost two years older to him. A new beginning, a luminous oasis in the midst of a desert, a new child implanted in her womb again, at the zenith of the consummation of a love affair that made her change her moorings all over again.
“It’s ours.” Her deep, resonant voice cut through the musky scent of his bare breast. A He, or a She, doesn’t matter, she thought to herself. Since its inception, Neil had kissed the welcoming spring in her tummy, and flaunted in its ownership. The thought of the new being inside her had engulfed her like a thick, rolling fog, like the shoulders of the lovers who had switched roles in her life. The antidepressants that their family care practitioner had prescribed for her during her tremendous trying times went off her shelves, and the hypertension symptoms she had, emerged at times like a secret tide, then slowly dipped underground again.
“Can I talk to Indraneil Sengupta? This is the nurse from Dr. Rogers’ office, it’s regarding your wife’s pregnancy.”
“Yes, speaking. What is it, please?” Neil’s voice shook as he received the call during the first hour in his office.
“Well, Mr. Sengupta, the preliminary ultrasound of the baby your wife is carrying was fairly good, with a steady heartbeat and all. But the recent prenatal screening she was scheduled for last week came out with some…some findings…and we would…”
“What do you mean? What happened to our baby?” He shouted, cutting the caller mid-sentence.
“Well, Mr. Sengupta, I am afraid there are good chances of the baby having a genetic birth defect, or a chromosomal disorder. The test results indicate a type of down syndrome, but there can be more specific findings…”
“And can I ask, what are the chances?”
“Well, as of now, the tests indicate a good 80% chance of the fetus growing with the disorder…”
As he stood in his cubicle, gripping the cell phone, his feet staggered. “I am sorry again, Mr. Sengupta, for…for having to tell you this…” the nurse stammered. “We know the medical and psychological condition of your wife already, so we decided to contact you first, regarding this. But you both have to come and visit Dr. Rogers to discuss the condition in details, and your wife has to go for some further tests, so that the diagnosis is confirmed further. And then, we would discuss with you what options you can consider.” She added. The last part of her words, a blurry melange of words and sounds, failed to register in his senses. He flopped down on the floor, close to his desk. …………………………………………………………………………………………………
The thin mist of the fall was rearing its head as Shalini looked up at the contours of the sky kissed by the skyscrapers and the evening lights which were just beginning to explode in the nightscape about to descend on them, a cool, gleaming red, blue and fluorescent yellow. At the topmost floor in the observation deck of the Reunion Tower, five hundred feet above the city of Dallas, an icy stillness settled in her heart as Neil caressed her shoulders lightly in the presence of other onlookers.
“Please try and understand, be a good girl and listen to me. We cannot keep the baby, it would be too risky for you to give birth to a genetically challenged baby, and too risky for us both to nurture it for life. Please, Shalu, not this time. We saw the videos and the slideshows of a baby with such conditions, didn’t we? How could we cope with the fetus developing abnormally, with a number of physical and mental problems? How would we battle with it all our lives, have you any idea?” Just a week back, he had pulled her towards him to let her thaw, melt in his arms in the blanketed warmth of their bed. He took some time off from work, to coax her into the termination of her pregnancy.
She walked straight towards one end of the geo-deck, brushing aside the other visitors immersed in the panoramic views of the cityscape, capturing the illuminating wonders of the Thanksgiving lights in their cameras and smartphones. “Happy Thanksgiving!” The couples and the families romancing around, taking pictures, were flashing cheesy smiles while bumping into each other, the way Neil had done with her too, in his attempt to pull her away from her pitch-dark private hell.
From the vantage point, she was seeing the city lights, the sleek glass layers of the urban buildings, the dark luster of the veil of the glass window, and wondered what to be thankful for at that moment. The doctor whose surgical instruments probed deep inside the far end of her cervix and ripped apart her half-formed embryo just three days back, the flesh parts and the blood, gushing out of her, controlled with the intervention of nameless nurse attendants? The icy, steely stare of Neil and the doctor while they discussed the procedure of this termination and signed the paperwork? Or the litany of his monosyllables with which he bulged into her wound on their way back home? Their hands that moved together, seeming out of sync now, the practiced curves of their bodies reunited in bed again, with hopes woven again, much against the diktats of their ruthless times?
The journey back from the loose mirth of San Antonio to the plain, unswerving sameness of their everyday lives in Plano, Texas plagued him like an invisible, surreptitious wound. In between his staccato bouts of making love, and journeying together, they both fumbled for words, knowing they could rip their hearts out while their car raced past the long, stretching sameness of the interstate.
Words, in all their littered ambiguity as he called his parents, his younger brother in India on the way, curtly wishing them a happy new year, wishing the foamy bubbles of their estrangement would disappear at the long stroke of the night. Words, the silky rain and their drip-drop delight which he ardently wished and prayed, would come to their only sister Lily in their old, cobwebbed Durgapur home, washing down the tags of an ‘abnormal’ girl that their neighbors, their relatives, the people surrounding them had hurled on her. Lily, the dim, twisted smile, the dribbling mouth, the frog-like croaks that never became songs as she sat, wraith-like in her pale grey wheelchair amid the din and bustle of the everyday paraphernalia around her, etched in his soul’s canvas like an unresolved story. Lily, who comes back, by and by, to haunt him in the faraway land, the fourteen-year-old, the brainless, ‘spastic’ girl at the threshold of her puberty who had curled up, cold, motionless in her wheelchair one summer evening, years back, with her eyelids shut, the dark, red river of her menstruating cycle splashing the floor as it did sometimes. Only, that day was the finale to the grin painted with her crooked teeth, the finale to the questions in her life’s uncharted miles, questions which she could anyway never ask, burnt to ashes along with her in the crematorium.
“Oh God, did she die, just like that or did they end her life?”
A forced finale, the neighborhood gossiped, something his family might have wanted all along, while Neil, her eldest brother packed his bags and flew away from them all to attend an MBA program in a University in Houston, in search of greener pastures.
Why couldn’t he tear open and show his gashes to Shalini in all these days they had been man and wife? What stopped him as he clasped her hands and strove hard to kill her pain, one stroke at a time as he promised he would tend to her wounds? What stopped him from shouting out, as she sprung up in his arms and wished with all her might that their baby, the conjoined flesh emerging out of both of them must be given a chance to be born, whatever the odds might be? Could he open up to her now, peeling himself in the layers unknown to Shalu, once they reach home, and tell her there was still a bountiful rain waiting for them both at the end of this jagged road they had trudged? A welcoming rain which might usher in, once he confesses, squeezing her tight that he has also been a betrayer in her life, swallowing his own share of thorns.
“Don’t forget the appointment with Dr. Jones, the psychiatrist, coming up on Friday, Shalu.” He said, stroking her shoulders with one hand while driving. The rain might plunder the streets, their home, and their beings, any moment now.