SWEET DISH

 
(Published in Why we don’t talk, Rupa, 2010)
(Published in Why we don’t talk, Rupa, 2010)

Unquiet nights invite me in. Nights like this one, wet, windswept, shifting. I never go far, just on a walkabout. This is a residential locality; at this hour, the lanes are empty except for the occasional cyclist hunched up against the rain and silent except for the wind in the coconut palms. Streetlamps cast pale pools of light that underscore the depths of the surrounding dark.

Keeping to the shadows, I stop now and then to peer through a gap in the hedge. Framed in the windows of homes are pictures of domestic life: a woman stirring a pot in the kitchen, a man and a boy playing a board game, a girl in pigtails packing her schoolbag. Everyday images, but as I watch riveted, they become extraordinarily beautiful, rich and pulsating, radiant with an inner glow. I am careful not to linger – these are dangerous times. Sociologists have glib phrases for them such as ‘sudden wealth and conspicuous consumption’, and ‘the collective itch to grow rich’.  Are they saying that greed is no longer a bad word?

`Ma, Rohit is a greedy pig.’

`Shalu, don’t use such words for your younger brother.’

`But Ma, he finished the whole packet of Gems! Didn’t give me even one.’

`Listen, bitiya. I’ve made kheer today. I’ll give you an extra helping.’

`You’re only saying that because you know Rohit doesn’t like kheer.’

`What nonsense you talk! Go, set the table. Your father will want his dinner as soon as he comes home.

How old was I then? Eight or nine? And why did we have kheer? My mother’s diary has no record of that day. What I remember is that kheer, thick, creamy, garnished with nuts and raisin, was a sweet reserved for special occasions. For Diwali, for Report Card day and for the days Father would bring home his paycheck – there were a few occasions like that, I remember.

To the world at large, father was the ne’er do well. In her diary, my mother calls him sapnon ka saudagar, a peddler of dreams. Yes, my father’s head was big with dreams. They were always about money. Not in the few hundreds that we needed for rent, fees and food. No. Father dreamed of crores, of empires. Remember, to reach your destiny you have to start with a dream, he would often say. Once Ma retorted, I’ll settle for a second-hand car. Father’s eyes turned flinty; he hated to be reminded of the things we could not afford. We’re not poor, he’d tell us. We’ve come down a bit, that’s all. Go back a generation or two and you’ll find that our family owned hundreds of acres in the Doab region. Go back a century or two and there are rajahs in our family tree; palaces, royal elephants and servants holding up white umbrellas over our heads; harems filled with beautiful women. He’d add with a grin, yes, we’ve come down a bit – I have to make do with just one woman. But she is the fairest of them all. Then, even Ma would find it hard not to smile.

Ma had the girl-next-door look popular in the Hindi films of the seventies. A heart-shaped face, a clear skin, a snub nose and wide set eyes. Vikasnagar, where she was born and brought up, was a small agricultural town in the Doon Valley. Her name was Rukma. She came from a family of three sisters and two brothers. Their father was a munshi, an accountant. Rukma was the only one who inherited his aptitude for numbers. She attended classes in accounts and bookkeeping, acquired a basic skill in typing and found a job for herself in Dehradun. Apart from her father, she was the only one who earned anything.

It was around this time, when she had just started working, that Rukma also began to keep a diary. She chose a hardcover single-lined notebook, the first of sixteen similar notebooks. The paper was thick and rough, but she made it beautiful with her script – neat, bold and rounded. She wrote in Hindi of the journeys she made. The daily commute to the city was a ninety-minute bus ride past orchards of mango and litchi trees, silent forests of sal, a dry riverbed and a brick kiln. She’d cross tiny thatched huts and catch brief glimpses of the lives of those who lived in them: skeletal women who slogged in the kitchen and the yard; barefoot, unclad children who rolled discarded tractor tyres through the dusty village lanes; old men who sat at the chai shop staring at nothing. The scene never changed. Rukma traced in it the bleak pattern of her own future: an arranged marriage to someone who would accept a small dowry, motherhood many times over, a lifetime of slavery in the kitchen, slow-festering frustrations that would, every now and then, burst into virulent domestic quarrels. The distance from Vikasnagar to Dehradun was only thirty miles, but on those daily journeys Rukma dared to travel further. She began to dream her own big dreams. Then she met Father.

His name was Vinod Baijal. He was thirty-five, the friend of her employer’s son. The employer, Seth Puran Chand Mittal, had a medium-sized timber business. Like many self-made men, Sethji was thrifty by nature, but he gave his son Murali all the advantages of money, starting with a public school education. It was at this school that Murali had struck a friendship with Vinod, the son of a senior police officer.

Vinod was tall and fleshy with an air of suppressed aggression in his quick, loud speech and impetuous manner. He was briefly in the army but finding its discipline too hard to bear on a daily basis took a premature release. Subsequently, he tried his hand at a number of businesses: garments, computer hardware dealership and event management. Every time he managed to put together the necessary capital for his ventures through bank loans and money borrowed from friends. But there was such a rush in him for quick gains that he would expand too fast, hire the wrong people, splurge on overheads. Soon, the daily grind would get to him, he would be unable to meet his commitments, the suppliers would stop giving him credit and the debtors would hound him for money. He would lose credibility and friends. Finally, he’d go bankrupt. Then his mother, Punita, would plead with his father to use his connections to get Vinod a job.

Dhanraj Baijal, my grandfather, was known for his incorruptibility; he wore it like a crown of thorns. For such a man it was anathema to have to ask an acquaintance – he had few friends – for a favour. Yet, hounded by Punita, he would swallow his pride and approach his contacts for a job for his son. Vinod rarely stayed in a job beyond six months. The reason could be anything: a real or imaginary slight, boredom, inadequate salary, better opportunity. He’d quit without notice. Before long, some new scheme would fire his mind.

It was one such scheme that took him to Dehradun. The Doon Valley was a hub of the timber trade. Vinod decided that he would make a foray into the furniture business. Naturally, he went to Seth Puran Chand Mittal’s office. From my mother’s diary it appears she met Vinod several times. At Sethji’s request, she explained to him how the business was run. Vinod asked questions, first about the business and then about herself. One day he asked her whether she would move to Delhi. She agreed immediately. The diary does not give any reason, but makes it clear that it was her decision alone to leave her job and her family. She packed an overnight kit, left for work as usual and did not return. Her letter to her parents only said that she was going to Delhi where she’d been offered a better job.

The furniture business developed the usual troubles. Within eighteen months it was grounded for good. Next was the filmmaking venture. Vinod had met a scriptwriter who made a tenuous living by writing scripts for corporate promotion and training videos, but dreamed of writing a TV serial. Vinod decided he would produce this serial. He scraped up enough money to shoot a pilot episode. For months he made the rounds of television channels, trying to sell the serial. At the end of another wasted day, Vinod would come back to his office, a room above the garage of his father’s house. He’d kick off his shoes and plant his feet on the table. Rukma would go to the market and buy him something to eat: a bun omelet, bread pakora or samosa. At that time Vinod was still living in his father’s house, but the two men had stopped communicating with each other. Vinod’s interaction with his mother was limited to the subject of food. Did he want breakfast, Punita would ask. Would he be back for dinner? No. His answer was always ‘no’. Though Rukma came and went freely, Punita never exchanged a word with her.

Soon, Vinod could not afford to pay even Rukma’s salary. She found another job in a ceramic factory in Gurgaon. At the end of her first day at work, she stepped out of the office at seven-thirty in the evening. She had started off towards the bus stand when someone emerged from the shadows.

“I’ll drop you,” said Vinod, sitting on his motorcycle. He took her out for dinner at a wayside dhaba frequented by truck drivers. Another six months were to pass before Vinod married Rukma. And that happened only because I was on the way. In her diary, she wrote: A wisp of desire. Who can guess its power? No matter what we believe of ourselves, our actions are based on our desires and dreams. But with that partial vision unique to dreamers, we are strangely blind to circumstances. Finally, reality compels us to rearrange our dreams.

I know now that my mother had wanted to abort. But, for some reason, my father would not hear of this rearrangement. Instead, he drove her to a temple and married her. There is a photograph of them, taken in a studio after the ceremony. They are side by side, they have fresh flower garlands around their necks. There is a hint of a smile on Ma’s face, just a tiny spillover, as if she’s holding her happiness very tight within herself. Father looks faintly irritated. There is another picture. It was taken on the day I was born. Father is holding me in his hands, gazing down at me with a strangely perplexed expression. At the time this picture was taken, Father had a job in a firm that provided security guards to factories. He had moved out of his parents’ house. Dhanraj had made it clear that he had washed his hands off the relationship. But, when my brother Rohit was born, two years after me, my grandmother began to visit us.

I recall her visits to our house in Gurgaon. After ordering the driver to park the car at the beginning of the dirt track that serviced our neighbourhood, Punita would get down, raise the hem of her chiffon sari and petticoat, hold a handkerchief to her nose and, with a disgusted look on her face, negotiate her way past cyclists, vendors, children, pools of dirty water and street dogs to our door. Ma would offer her a nervous welcome, run about fetching a glass of water and a cushion for her back and apologise for the cramped space. Punita would listen to her twittering with disdain writ large over her regal features. She would make it clear that she had come only to see her son and grandchildren. Before leaving she would place a sealed white envelope on the table. After she’d gone Father would pick it up and slip it into his pocket.

The job in the security firm began to pall. Father identified fitness as a sunrise industry. He got into a partnership with a friend who put up the money to start a gym. The deal was that Father would run the place. At that time I was eight years old. Sometimes, Father would take me to the gym. I remember the mirrored walls, shining steel equipment, loud music, the smell of sweat and room freshener. The place was always crowded. After a while the equipment began to give trouble. A man working out on the bench press had a heart attack and died on the spot. The gym was shut down due to mismanagement. It turned out that Father’s friend had taken huge loans. The banks began to foreclose. The friend vanished, leaving Father to face the debts and court cases. By now, Father was forty-six, grossly overweight, suffering from ulcers, his teeth rotten. The years had taken their toll.

It may appear from all this that I had a miserable childhood. That’s not true. In her diary, my mother wrote: Children have an instinct for happiness. They live only in the present – beautiful or ugly, it is all they know. Every moment is inset with its own sense of purpose. When do things change? When does hope turn its back?  May be when the realisation sinks in that tomorrow inevitably comes…it comes armed anew with its hollow promise. Those legions of empty tomorrows that march relentlessly towards us, they defeat us.

Rohit and I didn’t see that far; we were too young. We saw only the new lightness in the house.

`Is somebody coming to visit us, Ma?’

`No, Shalu… Why do you ask that?’

`You’ve tidied the cupboards and the kitchen shelves. You’ve changed the bed sheets even though it’s the middle of the week. You’ve made kheer today. All this tells me that today is special.’

`What a clever girl you are! Listen, did someone knock on the door? It may be your father. Give him a towel, bitiya. It’s raining. He’s probably drenched.’

How pretty Ma looked that night, how lighthearted. As we sat down to dinner, the four of us were caught up in the gossamer-fine web of our happiness. A web that was easy for them to spin. Father was in a cheerful mood. He hugged Rohit and me several times, kissed us and made little jokes. Every now and then his eyes would alight on Ma’s face; they would share a smile fraught with secrets. Outside the window, a sulphur-yellow moon struggled through a sea of monsoon clouds.

We finished eating. I helped Ma clear the table. Father started an arm-wrestling match with Rohit. I remember it clearly: Father’s arm covered with thick dark hair entwined with Rohit’s skinny smooth arm. Their eyes interlocked in a separate battle of their own. Rohit’s eyes bright with innocent laughter, Father’s eyes dark as an abyss.

Ma went into the kitchen. She returned with four bowls of kheer on a tray. She passed them to us individually. Later, the police said that the kheer was ‘laced with poison’. The news warranted front-page space in the national dailies. A tiny box on the left corner. Family suicide in Gurgaon. The report said that Father’s financial difficulties had led to this drastic step. Father’s name was not mentioned because he was Dhanraj Baijal’s son. My grandfather, though retired, had enough clout to prevent further details from leaking out. This time, he did not hesitate to use it.

The police found the empty bottle in the dustbin. What they couldn’t understand was why Ma had omitted to add the poison in one bowl out of the four. Why had she, instead, just added a dose of tranquilisers sufficiently large to knock out a nine-year-old for twenty hours? They asked me what happened in our house. Did my parents quarrel? Was my father worried about something? Was my mother angry? Was I unhappy? No, I said. We were happy that night. Our parents loved us, Rohit and me. It is true.

` Didi, your kheer has got more kishmish than mine!’

`That’s because you don’t like kishmish.’

`I do! It’s soft and it goes plop in my mouth when I bite it. I love it!’

`You don’t, Rohit. You know you don’t. You just want it because I like it.’

`Will you exchange your katori with mine?’

`And if I do, what will I get?’

`That packet of Gems…I didn’t finish it.’

`Liar!’

`No, didi. I’ll give it to you. See, I’ve kept it in my pocket.’

`How many Gems?’

`Seven.’

`All right.’

Our parents loved us – Rohit and me. But Ma loved Rohit differently. Though she doesn’t say it in her diary, I know. That night before we went to sleep in our room, she came to kiss us. I saw it in her face. Her eyes fixed on Rohit with such tenderness that I felt a hard knot in my chest. I looked away. Goodnight bitiya, she said to me a moment later, as one might say hello to a travelling companion, but I shut my eyes, pretending to be asleep.

Dhanraj and Punita took me in. We left New Delhi and moved to the south, to a quiet, cool city. Punita went through the motions of living: decorating the new house, training the staff to do things her way, wearing pastel chiffons, painting her nails seashell pink, baking cakes for Dhanraj’s bridge sessions. Habit, like water, created channels through which her daily life continued to flow unimpeded. She never talked about what had happened, but sometimes her gaze rested on me. That look of rancour. What are you doing here? Then it would disappear, to be replaced by the firewall of indifference.

It was different with Dhanraj. For a long time he was the only one who provided me with a form of meaningful human contact. He taught me to play bridge. We got into the habit of going for early morning jogs under the gulmohar trees in the park. Though he was a taciturn man, he anchored me in small ways. It was enough to get me through school and college. I did a course in ticketing and joined a travel agency. I moved into my own apartment.

I like my job. I meet all kinds of people: honeymooners wanting the ideal romantic getaway, families on budget holidays, grandparents travelling for the birth of a grandchild. I plan itineraries, make airline bookings and hotel reservations. I never fail to wish my clients bon voyage.

Yet there are nights like this one when I walk through empty lanes, looking into windows of homes at the simple tableaux of life. Sometimes they walk beside me. Vinod, Rukma and Rohit. Sometimes I see them inside the tableaux, looking out the window into the dark and at me. My dead. I hear their lament. I feel their pain, their yearning. For tomorrow, the day after tomorrow.
But tomorrow belongs to me alone.

Interview with Shinie Antony

My short interview with Shinie Antony. Shinie Antony is a short-story writer. Her books include Barefoot and Pregnant, Seance on a Sunday Afternoon and Why We Don’t Talk. She won the Commonwealth Short Story Asia region prize in 2003 for her story A Dog’s Death. She is a co-founder of the Bangalore Literature Festival and editor of the festival magazine Beantown. You will find my short story published in this anthology, posted next on the blog.

Shinie Antony
Shinie Antony

Q: What was the thought behind putting together the book of short stories Why We Don’t Talk?
Shinie: To showcase relevant short story writers along with stories by contemporary novelists. The book has a foreword by Shashi Deshpande, a maestro of both short and long fiction, and stories by Usha KR, Jahnavi Barua, Chetan Bhagat, Jaishree Misra, Susan Visvanathan etc.

Q: Why the title?Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 12.48.57 PM
Shinie:
The power of secrets, of what we don’t come out and say, the unsaid. For instance, Jahnavi’s story delves into what a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law keep in their mind about each other, Jaishree’s goes into an old family secret and Madhavi Mahadevan’s story ‘Sweet Dish’ unveils a dark spot in someone’s memory, a knowledge she holds unwillingly within her.

Q: Would you say the theme of ‘Sweet Dish’ – family suicides – has been dealt with adequately in the story?
Shinie: It is a brilliant handling of the theme. Family suicides per se are a sad phenomenon and headlines are full of them, but to go behind the deed, examine motives and deliver a non-judgemental fictional narrative along with a spectacular twist in the tail that is quintessentially Indian must have been a challenge for the writer.

The Game’s Afoot: The London of Sherlock Holmes

sherlock-holmes-147255_1280Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has become so much a part of our lives that no one can deny he is practically a historical figure. Fans of SH would be shocked to hear that he might be… fictional.

In the same vein, so much has been said about Sherlock Holmes’s London that it would be presumptuous of me to claim that my take is new or different – it’s all been said, and said by the best writers. What I have done is write about what excites me the most and why.

Apart from the consulting detective himself, the “great wilderness that is London” is the omniscient presence in the stories of Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock himself had a vast understanding of the city, apart from an intimate knowledge of its opium dens, the Opera House, Simpson’s and Pall Mall.

When Watson first returns to London, he calls it “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of Europe are irresistibly drained” Holmes disagrees, pointing out that the most dangerous alleys of London do not present a “more dreadful record of sin than the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

London was his canvas, his home and his turf. And what better backdrop do we need for the world’s most famous detective stories to unfold, twist and turn than London, where the weather enthusiastically pitches in to mirror the darkness that lies in the souls of men. Stormy, blustery windy nights, icy cold pavements echoing the footfalls of Holmes and Watson as they push their way through oily yellow fogs, clattering hansom cabs that bring the prospect of pure adventure to 221B Baker Street.

art_14When Holmes began his illustrious career in 1878, London was Dickensian – a constant jostling drama with chimney sweeps, dustmen, costermongers, ice barrow men, flower girls, footpads and Italian street singers rubbing shoulders with each other. The metropolis was slowly undergoing the metamorphosis into the great city it would become. Interestingly, Holmes’ love for disguise reflects these multiple characters that made up the texture of London.

One emerging trend in this Victorian England was the inter-mingling of different classes due to the surge of immigrants into the metropolis. 221B offers an interesting tableau in this regard. Holmes is clearly a member of the gentry, the son of an English country squire, Watson a member of the professional middles class, a doctor who also served in the army while Mrs. Hudson belongs to what they would call the lower middle classes. She is his landlady, not a housekeeper, keeps a maid and cook and also shows in his colourful clients.

Adding to this mélange are the Baker Street Irregulars — Holmes’ eyes and ears of the streets — homeless urchins who keep an ear to the ground and form the “Baker Street division of the detective police force”

The relationships are complex yet clearly defined. The close camaraderie between Holmes and Watson with the latter being his sounding board, biographer, friend and guide; Mrs. Hudson’s devotion to Holmes and his deep regard and affection for her (a closely guarded secret though!) and Holmes’ admiration for the tough, street-smart Irregulars whom he pays handsomely. Experts note that while Holmes admires their resourcefulness, the fact that he accepts their un-parented and homeless state reflects the general attitude to street urchins.

Baker_Street_Waterloo_Railway_platform_March_1906Moving on. We know that Sherlock’s brother Mycroft’s haunt, the Diogenes was on Pall Mall — which has always been the home of all the gentleman’s clubs that best exemplify the English sensibility, the Athenaeum, The Army and Navy Club, the United Services club, the Oxford and Cambridge club. The Diogenes was the club that housed the “most unsociable and unclubable” men in London. The number one rule was that there should be no talking and members could be invited to leave for coughing. It is here that we see Mycroft in — The Bruce Partington Plans (in the Stranger’s Room of course) and wonder if the club is a front for the Secret Service perhaps?

And finally Simpson’s in the Strand. Simpson’s opened in 1828 as a chess club and coffee house, The Grand Cigar Divan. It soon became known as the “home of chess”. The official website explains that the habit of wheeling large joints of meat on silver-domed trolleys to guests’ tables first began to avoid disturbing the progress of chess games — a practice Simpson’s still continues today. I was delighted to see that the official Simpson’s website proudly boasts of their famous patrons — Vincent Van Gogh, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone and Sherlock Holmes.

It was here that Holmes sat with Watson in The Illustrious Client watching the “rushing stream of life in the Strand.” (“She waved us into our respective chairs like a reverend abbess greeting two rather leprous mendicants…. if your head is inclined to swell my dear Watson, take a course of Miss Violet de Merville.”)

My London will always be the London of Sherlock Holmes where Watson would be shaken awake on a “bitterly cold night and frosty morning” to hear the immortal words: “Come Watson, come, the game’s afoot.” The London where Holmes and Watson clatter through the silent streets to Charing Cross Station, the figure of a workman faintly visible in the “opalescent reek.”

The magic begins…

(this was a guest post by Achala Srivatsa)

Sir_Arthur_Conan_Doyle_1890 Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle KGStJ, DL (22 May 1859 – 7 July 1930) was a British writer and physician, most noted for his fictional stories about the detective Sherlock Holmes, which are generally considered milestones in the field of crime fiction. He is also known for writing the fictional adventures of a second character he invented, Professor Challenger, and for popularising the mystery of the Mary Celeste. He was a prolific writer whose other works include fantasy and science fiction stories, plays, romances, poetry, non-fiction and historical novels.

achala srivastava

 

 

Achala Srivatsa is a market researcher by profession who observes the madness of the world and occasionally musters up the energy to comment on it. Her love for all things Sherlockian started at the age of 9 when she read the Speckled Band and it continues today. 

Interview with Jahnavi Barua

Jahnavi-Barua-e1409898940418-320x240Jahnavi Barua is an Indian author from Assam. She is the author of Next Door, a critically acclaimed collection of short stories set in Assam with insurgency as the background. She lives in Bangalore, and is a doctor.

Please find her short story called Birdsong featured on the blog.

Q. You’ve written a novel as well as a collection of short stories. The former requires planning ( outline, synopsis, chapters etc), but what about the latter? Do you plan your short stories, or do they start with an idea or an image, and just unfold?
A. I do plan my short stories — quite precisely, in fact. As any writer of short fiction will know, short stories demand meticulous crafting, perhaps more so than the novel which allows for some meandering. Quite often, I start with a character, a figure which comes to me incomplete, but as I build him or her up, put flesh on bones, an attendant story also unfolds.

Q. In your experience what sort of themes work better for the short story? What themes are you drawn to as a reader, and like to explore as a writer?
A.  I don’t know if there is any particular theme that works better for a short story, but  as a reader I relish stories of human relationships and I find I am drawn to writing about them too.

Q. Endings – how do realise that a short story has finished?
A. That is perhaps the easier part — a short story, at least for me, finds its own ending. It is hard to describe this but one develops a sense of an ending as one writes along.

Q. What is the relationship between the writer and the reader? Do you have an audience in mind when you tell the story? Do stories take on new meanings/ different nuances with the readers that you may not have intended? You’ve interacted with readers across the world – Is the Indian reader different in reading tastes and sensibilities, and if so, how?
A. For an author, the relationship between reader and writer is a critical one, one that is intimate and precarious, for without a reader there is no writer. As far as I am concerned, I do not write with a reader in mind; I just write and know — rather hope — that there will be some small segment of people out there who will enjoy what I am writing. Yes, I have found that readers unearth meanings in stories that the author would not have thought of, or only considered obliquely. Readers cannot really be stratified by nationality but I do find that readers from the western world have a  stronger taste for the subtle and the nuanced in fiction. Indian readers are very discerning and have a wider range of taste.

Q. Are short stories are harder to sell? What advice do you have for someone who wants to write them? How does one deal with rejection?
A. Short stories are harder to sell — publishers do say that but have I have personally been fortunate in being able to publish my short story collection without any struggle. Dealing with rejection is a very personal thing : I would say, keep writing until you are confident of your voice. Publishing in magazines , especially online ones is one way of honing your skills and gaining that confidence.

Q. What is your writing routine like? Do you keep a journal? Do you revise your work several times? When do you like to write?
A. I write at night, the day is too fragmented and busy to consider doing any serious work. I don’t have any journal– it is all in the mind! And I revise a lot in the mind, and not that much after actually writing it all out.

Also, shared below is another Commonwealth interview with  Jahnavi Barua.

Birdsong

“So, what have you decided?”

Directly above her is a scarlet minivet; he is a striking bird, with his scarlet and black plumage, and is sitting patiently, as if presenting himself to her. She tries to find the best angle for the picture. The branches of the tree are bare, it is almost winter and the bird is flamboyant against the stark skeleton.

“Are you going to answer?”

Her foots snags on a jutting out root as she presses on the button and the bird flies away, casually, as if judging that enough time has been given and now he must move on.

On the viewing screen, she is left with a red blur, the exact colour and ferocity of anger. His voice is tinged with that colour, now, and every so often.

Across the small water hole, a scarlet flash in a jackfruit tree. She makes her way swiftly to the foot of the tree. The bird is perched, motionless, above her, his long tail balancing him just so. She raises her head, peering through the viewfinder, trying to position the bird.

Warm breath against her neck. “What the hell do you think you are playing at?” he tugs at her shoulder, she loses her balance and throws an arm out, gripping the tree trunk. The bird flies away noiselessly.

“Listen, you have to decide one way or the other.” His voice is now jagged with fury.

She is keeping him from the cricket match on TV; even on holiday, in the middle of the forest, he remains glued to the screen. But, he too, is keeping her from her birds. Her jaw assumes a stubborn set. She thinks of all the times he has remained wedded to the television : when she lay ill in bed with the Dengue fever, shivering and frightened; when she walked their newborn son to sleep at night, frantic with pain from the C-section incision and worry; when she wanted to watch the birds on a late night programme.

“Excuse me,” she says and pushes past him, to the steps at the base of the small hill. She runs up the steps easily. He follows, she can hear him cursing, as he pants his way up slowly.

At the top of the hill is a small pelt of thick woodland. Tall silk cotton trees rise into the cloudless sky. A bulbul, a red whiskered one, sits on a lower branch. It is so fat it is almost like a small ball. She smiles at the sight. This has been a good idea after all. Her mother had urged them to come away for this weekend. “I will take care of Neil,” she had said, “Go sort out things with him. Divorce is not a solution.”

Divorce. The word terrifies her mother. In the beginning, she had been afraid too. How would she bring up a fatherless child? He had been confident, cocky almost. “You will never manage without me.”

Would she manage? She does not know. But she is less afraid of the word now. She has carried it with her for a long time now; it has grown familiar and no longer possesses the menace it once had.

She pushes deeper into the forest. It is dim here, even in the daytime. The path is narrow and uneven; she has to be careful, she has to watch her step. It is deceptively silent here. She knows there are eyes watching her, although she cannot see anything.

He is behind her. Stumbling and swearing. She feels a frisson of anger.

“He is not bad, darling,” her mother always said. Not bad, but that did not mean good.

Her mother went on. “He has never been cruel to you.” By that, her mother meant he had never hit her. But cruelty came in all shapes and colours and sizes. She thinks of how he often looked at her, a look so blank it chilled her heart.

Her son needs a father. She realises that. Divorce really is not an option. Only an idea she toys with to pretend she has a way out.

A cuckoo calls out from above. She looks up in delight. The bulky bird, sits half hidden behind the leaves of a tree.

Then, from the corner of her eye she sees the flash of a red tail. The minivet. It has followed her here.

He is almost at her shoulder when she lifts her neck and arms to point the camera. If, this time, he asks her , she will tell him she has decided against leaving him.

She looks into the viewfinder. The scarlet bird is sitting patiently, framed against the dark leaves of the tree. She almost presses down with her finger when there is a movement. A yellow and black bird has appeared and settled down gently next to the red bird. It is the female minivet! The male leans in towards his mate and she nuzzles him and draws closer.

Unexpectedly, she is desolate. Her chest tightens. She lowers the camera and turns to face her husband, the father of her child.

“All right, then,” she says. “Let’s get a divorce.”

– by Jahnavi Barua

(please read my interview with Jahnavi over here)