The end of a wordless argument

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I wrote the first part of this story a while ago. Ram and Kausi are having problems in their marriage, which sends Ram in a strangely introspective spiral. This final part is from Ram’s POV, and starts off with a disturbing memory.

I had been flipping channels, finally giving in to Scarlett Johansson’s charms in Match point, when the little one had crept in, her fingers furiously digging her nose.

“You know, amma* is going to leave the house. She said it to the phone”

I remember wrestling with the kick-to-the-crotch missive my daughter delivered and the urge to stop her from making pipes out of her booger. She could be a manipulative puppy dog sometimes, but that was not it. Her cherubic face had a shadow of almost nonchalance. It might as well have been Morse code to her.

The facts, meanwhile, have been adding up like numbers on that building in Union Square. The household has’t exactly been cackling with familial warmth. The kids are either the only ones talking or the only issue being talked about. And now, Kausi has plans to flee. Great!

Kausi slams her notebook down, her lips pursed tight—which actually means she nailed the killer conclusion for her piece—and gets ready to sleep. You had to live with Kausi to learn these quirks, and how they could throw you off-kilter sometimes. She would be in the midst of a nerve-wrecking tirade about something I did, and the next moment, laughing about some slip-of-the-tongue she had while tearing me the new one. You had to keep up with her train of thought. More like a missile, really.

What could she possibly be missing in her life? Her writing career has never been better. Her dance students were going international. Our kids have her looks, and our brains. I’d like to think that must be making at least half of Cabbagetown envious. It has to be something else. Could it be that I don’t spend enough time with her, and express the hell out of myself, like all those fluff pieces keep spouting? No, It couldn’t be that simple. Who leaves the house for that? What do those hacks know about my marriage? Didn’t they also peddle the “women are more spiritually evolved than men” crap?

Wait! What am I thinking? Talking has never cut it for me, and I am already double-down. I need to dazzle her, sweep her off her feet, and stop thinking in clichés. Jewelry is out. Of all the stereotypes about women, Kausi had to defy the one most amenable to gifts. She has way too many sarees⁑, for my contribution to count. So, it comes down to the thing I hate the most—a vacation. Why do people feel the insufferable need to travel? Well, I guess I could take her to Florida. Yeah right! She’ll probably amp up the alimony and use it to have me killed—once she stuffs her 401K with it—if I took her from Atlanta to Florida. It’ll have to be international; European maybe. Some pretentious sounding place like Venice or Greece.

I could push the tender meeting to next week. The kids could stay at the Raghavans’, their creepy teenage son notwithstanding. Kausi’s students could wait a week to become the next Mallika Sarabhai. Wow! I’ve really outdone myself this time. A weeklong trip in Venice is at least quality time raised to ten. I can’t wait to see Kausi’s almond eyes split wider open with joy, when I surprise her with the tickets tomorrow.

Unless time isn’t the mother lode of my mess. What if it’s one of those global problems, gnawing away at the marriage, going hitherto unnoticed. What if she’s gone past the point of no return? And, just like that, I feel my marriage closing shut on me again, this time, pushing my ten thousand dollar vacation wedge mercilessly out of the way. Kausi stirs beside me; she has never looked more peaceful. Her peace added to my turmoil. She probably found an answer—an answer this peaceful can’t be good news. How am I going to live without her? Who is going to stop me from stepping out in a maroon shirt and grey pants?

But, whatever happens I am keeping the cuter child; she can handle the teenager.

The little one woke me up from my sleep—patchy at best—by doing the trampoline on my belly. The scene before my eyes shoots my morning crankiness in the eye—

Kausi is busy packing. Her stuff. The kids’ stuff. It doesn’t make any sense. Why would she leave without talking? I don’t hit her. I didn’t cheat on her. Heck! I don’t even smoke. I am a loving father. That’s it—

“Where do you think you are going?”

“I am taking the kids to Raghavans’ place. We can talk after that.”

“No! I want to talk right now. You can’t just leave me. Why are you doing this to me? What about the kids? I am not signing any papers.”

The kids look like they saw a unicorn grow fangs. I don’t care.

Kausi gives me a bewildered glance, her first this morning, while dragging the luggage out—“Papers? What papers? Why are your eyes so red? Look I don’t want to—

“You know what! Fine! You want to talk; let’s talk. I am glad you finally discovered you could piece words together. But, you can regale me on the way to the airport. I was sick of not being able to spend time with you; sick of complaining to my friends about you; sick of waiting for your ‘aha!’ moment. So, I booked us a trip to Venice. And, no, you don’t have a choice. I am prepared to kidnap you if it comes to that.” Her eyes shift guiltily towards the kids, but she’s quick enough to resume the bone-piercing look at me—like only a dancer can.

Is it my turn to speak? I venture, nonetheless.

“But, the kid told me-that’s the reason why-Oh! I get it now-I don’t know what to-should I pack my-what time did you say was the flight?”

The kids don’t look away as Kausi envelopes me in a kiss so raucous that I taste blood in my mouth.

I am so glad my tickets are refundable.

( * : Mother; ⁑ : Indian garment)


Video coach (final part)

Here’s Part 1 and 2 of the story

What followed unfortunately, was a spree of increasing disappointment every day, for four weeks; this was, not because she religiously missed the train, but he did. She tried changing compartments, even trains, but he had vanished, much like a phantom, invisibly haunting her. Even worse, she kept having those dreams that had nothing to do with him, but always ended with the painting of his book in some form or the other. Had her subconscious lost perspective?

The month long wait and her ludicrous dreams assured her of one thing: she wasn’t cut out for anything new. She made peace with her life and sincerely tried to enjoy answering calls. She was on such a call one day, aimlessly scribbling in the in-house newsletter, when something in the budding artists section left her flabbergasted. She could have recognized that sketch in her grave. It even had her signature infinity sign. Only, the name below the sketch begged to differ. Forgetting altogether that she was still on the call, she frantically tried placing his name, certain of having come across it somewhere else: company memos, contact lists maybe and—yes, he had an office on the same floor as her boss. She almost bumped into his nameplate every time she got   off the elevator. But, how did her sketch get there?

It didn’t take too long to figure that out. It was her habit of getting rid of the sketches that didn’t turn out the way she expected, by stuffing them into anything she found in front of her: memos, magazines, dustbins, office booklets, telephone directories—some of which were circulated throughout the place, and thus, picked up by the thieving rascal.   But, there was no time to think about that now. She had to act, and soon. Never was she so overwhelmed that she couldn’t move an inch. She was furious and anxious; emboldened yet hesitant. A sudden burst of resolve jolted her off the inertia and she felt it amplify with her every step. Perfect or not—it was her baby to claim.

She stomped out of the elevator, towards his office, fully prepared to tear the guy a new one, but couldn’t get past his door. Instead, she just stood there, choked with emotion, hands quivering with nervous energy. Every inch of the door was covered with compliments, encouraging words, and bizarre interpretations of the sketch. Her sketch—the one she threw away, the one she thought didn’t deserve a second look—was up there speaking for itself, hungry for recognition. That was when the insight that she had been having in bits and pieces, finally crystallized. The dream about the book was not meaningless; on a subconscious level, she knew what needed to be done, something she didn’t have the strength to admit, until then. Now that it was finally upon her, she didn’t know how to react. First, she wept like a baby, free of shame and restraint, till her tear reserves dried up. Then, she laughed it off taking solace in the fact that all it took was an extremely attractive guy reading an appropriately titled book and some garden variety larceny to get there. More importantly, that moment was the closest to fearlessness she had ever experienced in her life.

Before she steadied herself to make a formal announcement to her boss, she scribbled a little note to the delinquent: “Thank you for waking me up.”

On the way back home that day, she bought The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and actually read it.

Video coach (Part 2)

 Chopping onions had always been a tearful experience for her. As she was nursing her red, swollen eyes that night, all she could think of was the infinitesimal moment when their eyes had met, as he repositioned his book. She had hurriedly broken the glance to  stare shamelessly at a poster that claimed to have found the cure for AIDS. That was about as eventful as it had gotten that day, although she had wanted to hold on to the glance a bit longer, probably segueing into a smile. She had wanted to squeeze out a moment of impulse out of her utterly mundane life. But it was too late for any change. It was ironic that she answered phones in a publishing house bustling with creativity, when she should have been filling up galleries with her art. Capability was never the issue; it was the crippling fear of failure. At 27, she lived the life of a 35 year old in a city where it was usually the other way around. Her sole source of comfort—life in Mumbai—seemed less consequential by the day.

The smell of onions burnt beyond repair shook her off what was going to be a long bout of self-pity. She was in no mood to start over and ate some leftover pizza. Mildly pleased by the mollifying effect of food, she hit the pillow, looking forward to dream that night. It was the only place the colors and shapes flitted around, free to morph into imagery impossible for her awake mind encumbered with despair to think of. It wasn’t surprising that she dreamt about ‘video-coach’ guy that night; what was surprising was that there was no physicality involved. It was not his eyes, his face or even a human figure she saw. She was alone in the ladies’ compartment of a train, dangerously gasping for breath, apparently suffocated by the invisible crowd around. Dripping in sweat, she was trying to fill her lungs with the last whiff of oxygen she could scrounge, when she saw a painting of a book—the book that he was reading. It looked bizarre with just the image of a book on canvas floating in mid air, and even more absurd as it felt like the only thing that could salvage her from her deeply agonized state. How could a book save her, let alone a painting of one? Upset that her own mortal peril killed her creativity that night, she shrugged it off trying to think of how to make ‘video-coach‘ guy notice her.

She wore a scorching red salwar kameez and more than a hint of makeup that day. This extra attention to detail being off her daily schedule, she ended up late for the bus to the station. Luckily, the rickshaws weren’t on one of their strikes. She used the ride to rehearse some conversation starters, just in case they happened to be within the talking radius. Discussing literary interests with him would be suicide as her trove began and ended with the likes of Sidney Sheldon. Politics didn’t interest her at all, or sports. She wasn’t much of a weather talker either. In fact, all she ever cared about was her textures on canvas and the crisp sound of pencil sketching on paper. It would seem a tad weird if she began talking to a stranger about whether he liked flowing strokes or semi-circular ones.

She knew she was going to miss the train as soon as she heard the familiar announcement at the station—something that always coincided with her train leaving. Nevertheless, she made a painful run for it, her legs clearly not used to the discomfort of high heels. In the end, she was left with two sore legs and the swiftly receding tail of the 933 local. Terribly disappointed and bruised, she barely managed to get to her office. The work had always felt like a nail being hammered at an excruciatingly slow pace; she looked forward to it that day.

Video coach (Part 1)

She jumped into the ladies’ compartment pushing several hefty women aside only to find that the paltry fourteen seats had already been taken. Cursing under her breath, she rushed to secure herself a safe place to stand, away from the wrath of the early morning influx. I should have taken that new AC bus my boss told me about—she glanced at the adjacent coach—or maybe not!

 His profile was all that was visible to her at the far end of the coach, yet she felt an inexplicable pull towards him. Oblivious to the frenzy around, he was all eyes for the book in his hands, all the while restlessly adjusting his glasses, which were sliding down his sharp but small nose. One would have thought that his luxuriant curly locks wouldn’t let them inch, let alone slide, but even they didn’t stand a chance against the Mumbai humidity. She strained her neck hoping to get a better look of his face when suddenly, hers was nearly pummeled by an elephantine backpack that emerged out of nowhere. Thank you for the facelift! By the time she could swiftly readjust herself to a vantage position, her eye-candy was AWOL. She kept frantically looking for him but he was nowhere in view. Must have gotten down at the previous station. There’s no way I could trace him now. What if he never takes the train again? She brushed off her histrionical thoughts and vowed to channel her imaginative bursts onto her paintings.

 She named him the ‘video-coach’ guy in ode to the coach so named as a tongue-in-cheek allusion to satellite encounters like hers. With its literal window of opportunity for the budding lover or a mere visual vacation for the mentally drained, it was the ideal setup for such shenanigans, in an enclosed space, without showing up on the risqué radar.

 It was not until a week later that she caught him reading, again. Only this time, he was standing close enough for her to notice that he had an unusual, inverted pyramidal face with bright, mischievous eyes that reminded her of an overtly inquisitive child. His checkered shirt sat snugly on his broad shoulders and a reasonably trim midriff. The hair was extra springy and looked like it could weather a tsunami unscathed. But she was interested in his eyes, more than anything else. It wasn’t entirely possible to tell if they were dark enough to be called black, but were tantalizing nonetheless. Amidst a boisterous group of men earnestly balancing a game of blackjack on a briefcase and a gang of college boys discussing India’s dismal cricket score with animated indignation or even the lonesome ones whose faces were furrowed with life’s endless questions, he was surprisingly unperturbed with a look of nonchalance so sincere that it was endearing. How does he manage to turn page after page without once looking around?  Then abruptly, almost as if in response, he switched his book to an upright position announcing its title—The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.

A wordless argument (Part 1)

Dinner at the Iyers’ house was suffocatingly silent that night. The innocent rhythm of the grandfather clock and the mischievous clink of silverware attempted in vain, to initiate a conversation. Having finished laying out the food, Kausalya did her little stretching regimen before she got back to working on her article on south asian dance forms. Ram got down to business on the dinner table, enjoying his meal in silence, cursorily flipping through stuff on his iPad. It wasn’t until only a few dregs of the paruppusili, which he thought was divine, remained, did he sense that something was amiss. He glanced towards kausi, wanting to kiss her for her gastronomic prowess and, more importantly,  how hot she looked in her glasses, but right then she looked as if she would shred to pieces, anything hindering her flow of thought. So, he got back to his gizmo, trying to nebulate the anticlimactic moment.

“Manushan….doesn’t even bother to initiate a conversation. I am done trying to engage him in one”, Kausi silently lamented as she corrected ‘who’ to ‘whom’ on her manuscript.  It had been over an hour but she couldn’t come up with the perfect conclusion for her piece. With the firm resolve not to ask Ram for any guidance whatsoever, she traipsed  to clear away the dishes and make preparations for the kids’ lunch the next day. Meanwhile, she turned on the mini TV in the kitchen to catch up on some bharatnatyam dance rehearsals of her students making their stage debut the coming week.

Ram found himself strangely uneasy that night. Perusing through the building designs for the final tender felt increasingly like trying to drive on a freeway looking into a straw. “Had the food not been so goddamn good, I wouldn’t ve have stuffed myself to the head with it! All I need is a brisk walk and the contract is mine” he felt disgusted by his own lame pep talk as he put on his sneakers, then annoyed that Kausi didn’t perform the key wifely duty of asking the hubby to zip it the one time it could’ve done him some good. He was about to leave when, “Oh look! It’s the rain now, that has passed the final verdict that a man cannot exercise his right to a brisk walk without a prior memo.”

Utterly disappointed, he slumped down on the couch and began thinking about what was really hankering on him amidst all the decoys. He knew that a 10 year old marriage ought not be the brilliant red it once was, but his was hurtling towards gray at an accelerating pace. It seemed like she had lost out on any reserve of interest she had in the relationship. She seemed cold and weary, qualities that were hitherto unattributable to her. Her seemingly infinite capacity to jabber, mentally exhausting though it was, kept the relationship from friction thus far. Her sudden switch-over to laconic ways left a large conversation vacuum, he had no idea how to fill. He had never been good at expressing himself, lest in colors and geometric shapes. He figured that years of marriage and two kids hence, he shouldn’t have to worry about expressions, but Kausi’s strange demeanor of late made him rethink his notions.

“Is she cross at me or plainly bored with the monotony of her life? How do I confront her? She’s sure to dismiss it if it was indeed something disturbing.”

And then, as if in a flash he recalled what his kids had mentioned in passing once, but that couldn’t have been true, could it?