Each evening at sunset as the brisk breeze ushered in autumn, Malati ambled to her favourite lake. She was fascinated by the theatre of carmine hues that poured from the sky mirrored in these waters in a silky display of pink, tangerine and copper. This evening the water was particularly suffused with undiluted vermillion, Malati’s favourite colour. From there suddenly surfaced the strangest images as if from a surreal dream. These were not fantastical phantoms, rather faces of actual actors from her past, whose memories she thought were long buried.
There were so many players in this spectacle, but she could see the main ones, mummy with her persistent hazel eyes, the balding Manu, his stare exploding like a monstrous green volcano and the ever-seductive savvy Surya, whose caressing chameleon-hued smile and bulbous mouth full of sugary words could melt a mountain. In the dusky shadows was Arun smiling wistfully at her from that gilded framed photo.
As Malati watched this pageant, she could picture a certain evening having an almost identical vermillion light from the sky. She had felt draped by it in a distant poetic dream clouded by peculiar forebodings. She was returning from the newspaper office where she had submitted another freelance article. At home she heard her mum’s voice, cutting through her reverie.
“Darling, I’ve some news for you. A young doctor client of mine at the insurance office saw your photo on my desk. He’s interested to meet you.”
“Of course. This looks like a solid prospective marriage alliance. He’s a well-placed gynecologist. If this works out, you’ll be in a happy home.”
“What about Arun?”
“You mean your classmate from college, still struggling with his poorly paying job?”
“I think he cares, mummy. I’ve seen it in those Valentine’s Day cards that he’s given me.”
“Has he proposed?”
“He’s hinted. I get the vibe that he wants to be better settled before he approaches us.”
“Darling, you can’t count on merely hints for your future. Besides, I’m getting older and you’re not getting younger. Time to throw off those foolish rose spectacles of yours and reach for reality. Dr Manu Mehta’s a good match.”
Malati made an effort to see common sense in her mum’s suggestion. As she combed her long coal-black tresses, she decided to wear her favourite copper-gold sari for the occasion and adorn her hair with creamy fragrant mogras. Who could tell? This encounter could end up being extraordinary.
When the doctor arrived at her home with his parents, he adjusted his glasses and examined her while he sat down. “So young lady, I hear that you’re an accomplished writer contributing to the local paper?”
“Yes,” she replied. “And you’re a doctor.”
“Indeed a well-known one, highly respected in big circles,” he answered proudly.
“That’s wonderful!” she said, pouring him some cardamon-laced tea and offering him a crisp samosa.
“Ah, so you’re a good cook as well,” he said, savouring a bite of the samosa.
“I’m fairly good at cooking, but it’s our maid Jamuna who prepared these.”
“Tch tch tch! As a wife, you need culinary finesse.”
“I’ve been taking cookery classes,” she answered.
“Excellent. I hope this means you’ll serve me some delicious food. You know, you’re quite pretty except for that excessive hair. You’re going to have to cut it shoulder length. And no flowers for God’s sake.”
“Because it’s more becoming for you to fit in as the sophisticated modern wife of an esteemed doctor like me.”
“I didn’t know we’d agreed on marriage yet.”
“Well young lady, isn’t my offer obvious?” asked Manu, raising an eyebrow.
“I suppose so.”
“I heard your conversation,” chimed in her mother. “Malati, aren’t you going to accept so that we can all congratulate you?”
“You both make a good match. Let’s seal this alliance,” joined in Manu’s father with a guffaw.
“I don’t really want to cut my hair, Manu. It’s taken me years to grow it and I love it,” said Malati to him in a low voice.
“Is this all you can do to please your future husband?” he asked.
The subject was left in mid-air amidst the uproarious chatter, as Malati found herself passively acquiescing to this alliance. All the misgivings she’d felt in her conversation with him were somehow buried in the excitement of a so-called well-placed marriage.. Vaguely she accepted that somehow destiny seemed to be aligning it all and it would probably work itself out.
Just as hasty as this meeting was their suddenly arranged marriage ceremony. It all moved so quickly. Their wedding night followed in a four-star hotel overlooking the beach. After they checked into their suite of rooms, Malati slipped into a charming pink negligee and swayed playfully in front of the creamy bedroom curtains. Manu was unpacking his suitcase to pull out one of his gynecology journals. “What on earth are you doing in that skimpy garment?” he growled.
“It’s our wedding night, Manu. I wanted to surprise you with something special.”
“Special?” he blasted. You look like a cheap tart in that. And why’re you so obstinate about cutting that mop of hair?”
“I’m not obstinate. It’s taken me years to grow it! You know I love my long hair.”
“Can’t you do anything to please your husband?”
“Not my hair please, anything else,” she pleaded.
“Stop whimpering! Now don’t stare at me with that stolid, stony-faced expression.”
“Manu, why’re you so mean? Have I asked you to change your looks?”
“Ah that’s different! I’ve given you a prestigious name, a home.”
“Marriage is for a partnership, Manu. I already had a home.”
“You’ve no sense of humour.”
“What humour do you expect from all your nasty comments?”
“How can an illiterate like you possibly fathom humour?” he asked, throwing his head back in a blast of laughter.
“I’m very educated, Manu I had no idea anyone could be as unpleasant as you even on the first day of our honeymoon!”
“And Malati, I had no idea I’d marry one with hair that looks like a broom. Now stop gasping in that stupid way. You’ve a long way to go my dear, before you reach a lady-like level. Stolid and stony-faced!’ he hissed again, as he glowered into her horrified eyes.
She tried to blink through her stinging tears as she crept out of the room. How could she bear all this constant verbal lashing? She needed a walk under the sky, seeking any possible comfort from the whispers of the night breeze. Couples passed her, walking arm-in-arm. Her eyes followed them wistfully. Why had she fallen into the trap of this hasty marriage? Would it ever get better? When she returned to the room, Manu yelled, “Where on earth did you wander off?”
“I thought you wanted to read your journal. So I decided to take a little walk on the beach.”
“Only streetwalkers looking for clients walk off like that. Is that what you’re trying to do?”
“Streetwalkers could hardly be described as virgins on their wedding night!” she wanted to scream, but remained silent to avoid further humiliation.
Manu continued reading his journal and then drifted off to sleep. The next day, they took a train heading for Miramar, a beach resort town where one of Manu’s colleagues had arranged a holiday cruise for them. Malati was relieved that her husband was too preoccupied with his journal to continue this argument with her. Soon, they arrived there, with animated people waiting for them and ushering them into that ship.
There on board, the couple was cheered. “Your wife’s quite lovely!” commented one of the medical guests, Dr Simon Jenkins, an expatriate from U.K.
“Thank you,” replied Manu. “I do have good taste, don’t I, my love?” he asked Malati, giving her a dewy-eyed look she had never seen so far.
When Dr Jenkins stepped aside to pour himself a drink, Malati touched Manu’s shoulder. “What’re you doing?” he bellowed, reverting to his usual brashness.
“I’m your wife, Manu,” she answered.
“Leave such intimate gestures to me instead of embarrassing me in public in such an unwomanly way. You’re such a shame, a village idiot with that awful mop of hair.”
Malati watched him through a dreaded haze, wondering when there would be any loving moments in this marriage. She walked on the deck, while Manu was making small talk with his colleagues, all congratulating him on his marriage.
In the midst of this banter were a variety of singers and magicians entertaining everybody. Malati gazed into the azure waters. Her silhouette below looked like a pale ghost. She wished she had the courage to jump in these waters and end this nightmare. Never a good moment from the very start and even so early on in their marriage. How could anyone call this horror show a sacred union at any level?
Her mother telephoned her that night. Malati recounted the unpleasantness of it all without sharing the delicate details. “I know the problem, darling. Cut your hair and he’ll come round. Give this marriage a chance. Also when you have children, things will get better.”
As Malati lay in bed, she pictured the tender glances of Arun. Why had she not trusted her instincts and waited? Sadly, the pages of that chapter were already turned. With crossed fingers, she knew she had to make the best of this marriage and blot out the memory of what was now a shadow.
The rest of this honeymoon felt like a furnace blazing with more yelling and insults from Manu before she took the train back with him in exhaustion to their married home. Once there, she decided to go to the local hair salon and cut her hair. If this was going to be the only solution to fixing this marriage, she’d do it. Angela’s beauty salon was the fanciest one she had heard about. When she arrived there, the owner Angela herself attended to her with care. Opening out Malati’s undulating tresses, she said,
“Your hair’s gorgeous. It would be a shame to cut it.”
“Yes, but my husband wants me to look modern and to live up to the sophisticated image he expects.”
“That can be easily done with any of the hairstyles from my catalog. If I arranged your hair in a French roll or a bun, you’d look ultra glamorous. Would you like to consider that?”
“Very considerate of you, but my mind is made up. I need to save my marriage. A shoulder length haircut is what I’d like.”
Malati walked into the drawing room that day, looking ultra-modern with her bobbed hair. Manu commented casually,
“I see you’ve cut your hair.”
“Do you like it?” she asked.
“It’s okay, but there are a lot of things you need to fix like the food you cooked this afternoon. That chicken curry was awful, too bland. And the rotis were not rolled correctly.”
“I gave up my treasured hair for you and all you say is it’s okay and then complain about everything else.”
“Stop whimpering! You’ve a long way to go. If you make rotis like this, I’m going to throw them in the trash.”
“I could’ve made you a fresh batch. You didn’t ask.”
“Do that soon or I’ll have to sack you for your lousy cooking.”
“And what do I get to sack you for?” she asked with spirit.
“For putting up with a brainless idiot like you. See, you can’t even hold a conversation about anything without sounding stupid. By the way, do you even read the local news? Obviously not. You’re dull and boring, and not even a starving mongrel would eat the rubbish you cook Don’t be so mean,” he said in a falsetto, mocking her voice and mimicking her lowered downcast face.
Malati felt her head spinning from all this because the repetitive abuse only got worse everyday despite her continued efforts to please her husband. Cutting all that hair had done nothing. It was one day after he called her a pig and spat on her face after throwing out the food that she had carefully prepared that she knew that this demon’s only goal was to destroy her soul. There was no hope of any kind of marriage without her dying from this trauma.
“Darling, why’ve you come back home?” asked her mother when she saw her daughter at her doorstep one day with her suitcase, dishevelled, eyes sunken and flashing in spasmodic fear, with a hoarse tremor in her voice.
“I cannot live there anymore, mummy. He’s a cruel devil.”
“If you only waited until you had children, it would get better, darling.”
“How could that be when there’s never been the slightest intimacy between us, mummy, don’t you understand?” screamed Malati.
“What? You didn’t tell me that before.”
“I couldn’t. The abuse was bad enough. It was too awkward. He wants to kill me. That’s what the ‘respectable’ doctor you wanted for me desires,” cried out Malati.
It was obvious from all this ugliness that this unconsummated marriage had to be annulled. The traumatic effects that all this left made Malati highly nervous, in constant tears, depression and sleeplessness. She wandered around the house like a scared phantom in a fever of tears.
Their family physician suggested rest and peaceful Nature walks to restore her. So, she started spending time in Gulmohar Park, with its many flowering trees, fragrances in crimson and golden hues. She sat there like an immobile statue, amidst the changing hues of Nature, the birds resting on the pond and the passersby. It was one evening while her eyes were fixed on the sunset that she heard a voice,
“Yes?” she asked, alarmed.
“It is I, Surya.”
In front of her stood Manu’s brother, Surya. She’d seen him at her wedding, but had barely spoken to him. Now she backed away nervously.
“What do you want? Is he here?”
“No Malati, he isn’t. Could you please give me a hearing?”
“Has he sent you here to bully me?”
“No no, please don’t think such things. I’m a peace-loving person.”
“What do you want?”
“I’ve come to try and help you. I’d like to help salvage your marriage.”
“How can you salvage what’s destroyed and charred?” she asked, her frail voice cracking.
“I understand your hurt and pain. Do give me a chance to mediate and be of help. I cannot bear to see you suffer like this. That’s why I made efforts to look for you and found out that you walk here.”
“There’s nothing you can do. I’m barely alive after all that happened.”
“I know all about Manu’s arrogance and vicious tongue. I’m so sorry that a beautiful lady like you had to bear the brunt of all this.”
“Then why’re you here?”
“Because I’m aware you want to annul this marriage and I hoped I could do my part to help stop it. You should return to your husband’s home. It’s your home too.”
“How can you even say that when he’s only treated me hatefully?”
“Do please give it a chance. Things will iron out.”
“With effort. I know Manu doesn’t take advice well, but will slowly understand.”
“I cannot go back to that monster,” she cried out. “Leave me alone.”
“Please don’t cry. I’m sorry I’ve upset you,” he said, reaching out to wipe her fresh outburst of tears with his handkerchief.
He sat quietly with her on the bench. They watched ducks and swans floating on the pond as the sunset cast a warm fiery glow over that mirror of water. The breeze was soft and soothing like Surya’s assuring words. He seemed almost the opposite of his brother in appearance and manner. Thin with gaunt cheeks and a smile that came across as an unspoken compliment, he asked her what she liked writing and encouraged her to pursue her lyrical gifts.
“In my government job, I’m actively in contact with the media. I know several newspapers and magazines that would love your feature articles and fiction. Let me bring you the list tomorrow.”
They met the following day and talked in the same place. She was delighted to get that list from him. The subject of Manu seemed to be vanishing into the shadows as Surya spoke about his own life. “Malati, I’m so sorry you’ve gone through all this. If it gives you any consolation, Rohini’s pretty vicious too. We’ve two children and I have to endure her cruel fits. She could almost be the twin soul of Manu.”
“Is she as vicious as Manu?”
“Just as evil and worse in many ways.”
“But it can’t be that bad if you’re still together,” exclaimed Malati.
“I’ve learnt to turn a deaf ear to her. Ours is a marriage of convenience, nothing more, if you could even call her explosive and vindictive nature a convenience.”
“I’m so sorry to hear all this.”
“It’s okay.” He cast a long admiring look at her with his carnelian eyes. “You know you’re such a lovely, alluring lady! Manu’s an idiot not to have showered you with love.”
“Quite the opposite, Surya. He basically intimated that he found me repulsive and couldn’t bear my presence even during our so-called honeymoon.”
“How stupid of him when you are actually so pretty. I notice you cut all that gorgeous lustrous hair for him.”
“Yes, but it did no good, Surya. He only wanted to destroy anything I cherished. Demon!”
“Don’t worry, your hair will grow back. You’re so beautiful with or without it.”
“Very kind of you to reassure me.”
“I’m merely speaking the truth.”
They watched the evening sky turn copper and then like a sea of amethyst as the darkness set in. Surya cast his gaze on her again and said, “You know your eyes are luminous like jewels adorning your chiselled face. Hasn’t anyone told you that?”
“No. I usually keep to myself.”
“If I’d only met you earlier, things could have been so different,” he said sighing.
“What do you mean?”
“The obvious, Malati. Looks like we’re two kindred souls who should’ve collided together.”
“W-w-what are you s-s-saying, Surya?”
“The obvious. I’m so drawn to you. Strange are the ways how fate brings people together.”
Malati found his gaze and that soft cinnamon scent he exuded mysteriously charming. Every word from him was soothing and hynotic. It was like an otherworldly balm assuaging her wounds.
When she returned home, she told her mother about Surya’s visit to the park.
“That’s a good sign. Maybe Manu wants you back,” said her mummy.
“I don’t think so. The marriage has to be annulled. I’m not returning,” replied Malati to her clueless mother, oblivious of the error of all her poorly-thought out desperate ideas.
Luckily the conversation stopped there. Malati felt her strength returning with the flood of compliments that Surya gave her. On one of the several days that he met her at that same park bench, he said, “Malati, I’ve a surprise for you.”
“Yes. It’s my birthday and I want to celebrate it with you.”
“Wouldn’t it be more proper to celebrate with Rohini?”
“She’s out of town, thank God. Let’s not miss this opportunity. Come on, beautiful lady.”
His smile charmed her like the dazzle of his honeyed compliments. She wondered what restaurant or cafe he was driving her to. To her surprise, it was his flat. There was no food, merely some fresh lime. However, he played soft music and asked her to dance to with him.
“I don’t dance Surya,” she protested.
“Try tonight while the moon floods the room through the window. You’ll be surprised at yourself.”
He extended his arms and drew her into them. Dancing very close to her, he whispered to her a number of times that he found her heady, like the moonlight. “I’ve been waiting for this moment to be with my dream woman. This is our night.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t say no,” he pleaded as he cupped her face.
“Surya, this is most strange,” she said weakly.
However, by this time, his magic that had accumulated from all their meetings worked with ease in these fiery moments. That night when he dropped her home, she found herself still in the warmth of their embraces. What an ironical twist of fate that such an intimate event had to happen in this way, of all things with the brother of the very husband who had wounded her spirit.
Their meetings continued with them now as undisputed lovers in a forbidden secret relationship. They spent idyllic evenings arm-in-arm in the park or in his flat amidst sweet nothings and passionate embraces. Surya kept saying their time together was a design of fate.
“Look what you’ve done to me, Malati! I wish I could be with you forever.”
“I feel the same. We should.”
“Of course, but what’s more important is our present. I’m here with my darling,” he answered dreamily.
Then one day after that, abruptly with no explanation his trips to the park diminished noticeably. He wasn’t there at their usual bench. Malati felt alone without him as she waited, her eyes searching the paths of the park. The breeze around her felt chilly and she felt haunted by strange fears. Where was he?
She tried calling his cell phone a number of times, only to get an automated answer and no reply. Frantically, she found out the phone number of his office and left messages for him, which were also not answered.
Teary-eyed and sleepless, she felt a chill and emptiness fill her. What was the meaning of all this? What was she to do now? Then weeks later, he showed up at the park. Those carnelian eyes of his had changed colour like a chameleon. His arms were folded like steel across his chest. Giving her a knife-like black stare, he burst out,
“Malati, you’ve been calling my personal number and office persistently. I find it annoying and I don’t mean that lightly.”
“Surya, your tone is suddenly so harsh. How can you speak to me like this? After all the times we’ve spent together so intimately, wouldn’t it be natural for me to telephone you when you suddenly disappeared?”
“But this extent of phone calls is beyond natural. It’s obsessive and irritating.”
“Surya, what’s wrong with your tone? Don’t you love me?”
“For God’s sake, stop being so ridiculous. Yes, we were turned on by each other. You know I’m married with children and yet you were willing to have an affair with me.”
“Affair Surya?” she asked, staring at him in disbelief. “You started this whole thing. Remember saying we’re kindred spirits? Saying ours was a design of fate? All those talks about wanting to be forever with me?”
“Come on Malati, you can’t be all that naive. Men say such things. It’s a part of the game of life. How could you possibly think I’d leave my rich wife for you?”
“You said you were unhappy with her.”
“I’ll never give her up. She happened to be out of town and that affair worked out conveniently for us, stupid woman.”
“Stupid or victim of your evil trap? I’d like to remind you that you came to the park to find me and said you wished to salvage my marriage. Then you lied about love and passion only to seduce me. Your virgin sister-in-law of all people!” she screamed.
“Your marriage was already dead and in ashes. You and I knew it. That conversation was just a senseless formality, a farce to please the family.”
“Surya, you’re a whole lot worse than Manu, with all your conniving sweet talk. Yes Manu’s evil and sadistic, but even he’d be furious with your disgusting lack of honour. Why didn’t you go to bars for your peccadilloes instead of pursuing me?”
“Who says I don’t go to bars as well?”
“You know Surya, if I wanted to be as ugly as you, I could tell Manu the whole thing.”
“Do you think I didn’t consider that you’d do that? So, I already told him I tried to help, but you proved to be the exact lustful woman he said you were. Remember your pink negligee?”
“That was something special for my husband on my wedding night.”
“That’s not how he saw it. He said you were lascivious. So, your telling him anything will have no weight.”
“Lascivious? That’s ‘you’ not ‘me’, you lying molester!”
“Stop these hysterics! And don’t bother to contact him or me again. I warn you it won’t go well for you.”
A chilly breeze now gave her sudden goosebumps and shook her out of this spectacle of murky nightmares. That was the last time she had seen that predator Surya. She looked now at the streams of vermillion on the lake. They felt like tears that had bled incessantly over these years in the hopeless silence of her injured soul. She had not uttered a word about this to her mother, who’d only lived in the ivory tower of her conventions. Mummy had died in a crash not long after all this, so there wasn’t anyone to chide Malati about any of this.
She now pondered now over her recent trip to the Italian restaurant, where her classmate Arun had once worked as a part-time employee years before. Now she was told he was the manager. He wasn’t there when she had popped in a week ago to order a bowl of minestrone and some pizza. However, she left him a greeting card even if merely to renew the gentle memory of the tenderness in their once unexpressed vermillion dreams. This was long before so many ugly scars had sullied them. Malati gazed at the tapestry of leaves above her glowing in shades of agate, olivine and carmine, wondering whether her possible meeting with Arun in future could be even more beautiful than it had been years before. Or would they merely vaguely awaken reminiscences of those shy outpourings in Arun’s Valentine’s Day cards still in her drawer?
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