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April 06, 2020

Anomaly

Text by Urvashi Bahuguna. Illustration by Namrata Kumar

Author and poet Urvashi Bahuguna pens an exclusive short story for Verve

KARAN

After ten, the roads are clearer of other cars. On nights like this, he takes the less frequented route, the longer way back to the apartment. He has a colleague who walks the five kilometres to his home, crossing two double-lane intersections and broken pavements built around old neem and peepul trees. Despite the stench emanating from the walls along one stretch, the walk is still a pleasant one. Outside of the capital, people are reluctant to understand this. When his colleague winds up his submissions for their daily newspaper around the same time as Karan, they linger for a few minutes. The little stall outside their office gate sells cigarettes and mint. The two of them smoke with the ease of people who spend all day in close vicinity without needing anything from one another.

His motions of getting into the Civic are practised — an old friend had once told him. He has not spoken to her in a year. The annual reunion meals suffice to carry forward a friendship whose origins trace back several phases of both of their lives. They care, but there are other people for more frequent company. He has a theory: it helps that neither of them seeks out the other outside of this. With his hand on the wheel, he leans into the word ‘practised’. There is a firmness to it.

Aru is up, as she nearly always is, when he walks in. The thin bracket of warm light under their bedroom door signals that she’s in bed watching a show. Lately, it’s been a docu-series about competitive cheerleading. She watches with earphones in so that their daughter isn’t tipped off to more exciting ongoing activities than sleep. He is accustomed to this period of quiet that the asleep and the silent allow him.

This may change someday when one or both of their parents need it to. Recently, he had written a small news item of a retired couple who’d led successful plantation drives in their neighbourhood and taught other residents how to grow and harvest easy vegetables in their balconies. They’d refused a phone interview, insisting on showing him the progress of the saplings they’d planted over the last five years. Inside their house, drinking water from a steel tumbler, he had looked for signs of other relatives. “Everyone wants to know if we have children,” said the wife, “our daughter lives in Pune. We are independent for now, we are happy.” It lightened the unease he had felt at what he’d interpreted as an anomalous aloneness in the world.

The stories he tells Aru before bed aren’t always as interesting. She recaps what their daughter gets up to after she is picked up. She’s still speaking intermittently as he drifts off to the familiar sounds of her distant voice. The smell of a warmed pan wakes him up as he stands over it, drinking the day’s first cup of coffee. He has heard his daughter tell her friends that he cooks, serves and clears up. The way she breaks it into three processes amuses him. Maya has been watching him in their combined dining and kitchen area. It is just that one meal. Already, she knows it is a novelty that he prepares eggs and poha and pancakes and toasts bread on a tawa. In time, she will realise that he chooses this over ushering her from destination to destination in a timely fashion in the lengthy enterprise that is getting ready for primary school, that he prefers to extend their privacy before a cook arrives to prepare the other meals.

His friends are less confused by him now than he thought they would be when he and Aru got married young. They drop Maya off at Aru’s parents or alternate their evenings out. The man who comes out — who doesn’t speak of granola now that he’s a parent — is a man his friends are comfortable with. Maya sits in the chair she usually does — the one that faces the small, open kitchen. Having been raised with a brother, he is relieved to be outnumbered in adulthood. There is a depth to the friction between Aru and him, different from the minor disagreements he’s had with friends and old girlfriends. In the trenches with her, he finds that they pull back and draw together with the weary patience of people who would rather not fight. The irritation he feels at her occasional flippancy is swallowed down. He has always been this way. He will brew an unnecessary cup of tea to step just far enough away.

At the table, which they share each morning, and on the weekends, he observes her with interest. His wife’s life is known to him — the family fault-lines; a previous relationship, a desire to write, a devotion to and near-anxiety about their child. He connects the dots between what she says and what or who it may originate from or reference. The remark about him being a man who did not change didn’t make sense till she said later, “It is okay that you don’t change, because you were good to begin with.” He knows that this comes from the long line of people she’s met who should change but won’t.

His brother had not told him. The development tested their combined social circles whose loyalty had, so far, extended to them both. Two common friends, Kalyani and Nina, had reached out, independent of each other. He is grateful to them, from a distance. He feels their strained sympathy. Aru is unhappy. When he explains it to her, he fumbles a bit. The words “behaved incorrectly” come out, clumsy and frightened and splintered by love. He sounds like his mother. On his second attempt, he’s able to say it more plainly. The next morning at breakfast, she holds Maya in her lap with her cheek to the child’s head. He wants to reach out to them, but he hesitates at the tableau in front of him, afraid to penetrate their bubble.

Away from the table — at work, in the washroom, in moments alone — he reads back the message from Kalyani — the  first friend to reach out. She wouldn’t say anything over text. It’s sensible, he knows. In her shoes, he would have done both the decent and the practical thing too. After the call, he considered asking her to meet him for a cup of coffee. He had a burning need to understand but no concrete questions. Some primitive instinct that transposed his brother’s actions with his own held him back.

In the days after, he feels distant from Aru. He feels closer to the colleague who loves walking and cigarettes, whose baseline slowness indicates his definitive preferences. When he texts a painstakingly casual message to his brother on WhatsApp, it will not deliver. He tries SMS, which works. Aru’s guess is that his brother can’t switch off his phone entirely without compromising work and alerting their mother.

She asks him some nights later if he has spoken to his brother. He feels chastised. Maybe, he isn’t a good man. Unable to extract himself from this line of thinking, he sleeps fitfully. What is a good man anyway but an illusion waiting to be broken into.

Years before Karan found out, years before the incident took place, his brother had told him a story. There was a woman (different from the one who would start it all up). Karan had stayed over. His brother was cracking eggs and talking about the frittata this girl taught him how to make. He will fixate on this story after he learns. He imagines his brother and this girl huddled together at the stove, at the table. He cannot recall the girl’s secret tip for making the frittata crispy. He can’t help but be obsessed with his own surprise. But once he was good. Is he still…good? What will he tell Maya when she’s older?

ARU

Her virtual writer’s class meets today. Last week, the instructor had asked each one of them to write flash fiction under 500 words about a character called Nain. Those were the only criteria. When all the pieces had been uploaded, she read a dizzying array of stories about Nain. Nain was a college student on the outs with her mother. Nain was a chef reviving the cuisine of her people. Nain was a 60-year-old woman whose greatest delight was the sheer number of shows she could stream late in life. Nain was someone’s last girlfriend before he married someone else. Nain was a homebody with a young kid and a weakness for courses, workshops, seminars.

Once, when Karan was overtired and under-slept, he told her, “You’re more fixed in your ways than you think. I don’t know why you insist on seeing yourself as a free spirit.” After a moment: “Who you are is perfectly adequate.” She can’t call him angry because he won’t rise to that state. Instead, she sees something deliberate in his actions, the way he carefully portions the day into the times when they are with their daughter and the times they aren’t, who he was around his mother and brother, and who he was when they were alone. It was applied with such consistency that she couldn’t consider it strategic. His compartmentalising came naturally to him, she concluded.

Which Nain was hers? The Nain in love with her husband, the Nain infuriated by him, the Nain afraid to tell him she doesn’t want his brother around. It’s not that she doesn’t want him around at all, just as little as possible. She doesn’t include this last subplot in her assignment. There is more culpability possible to go around in these situations than she can handle. Plus, there isn’t space. Drinking their tea at the table, she tells him about the  writing prompt, about the insular, repetitious universe they’ve communally created. “What is it for?” he asks as he pieces together a puzzle with Maya who is directing him. “THIS,” she says, “goes HERE.” “I am not sure yet,” Aru responds after she tells her daughter she’s doing a great job, “maybe we’re supposed to see that a single idea can morph into very, very different stories depending on who the teller is?” He purses his lips and nods.

The solid one. That’s how her friends think of him. He listens, her closest friend Rai says. That’s rare. He remembers. He picks up previous threads of conversation. Rai is building up her argument, “He doesn’t say distracted things like, ‘Oh yeah I remember you telling me about that,’ he’s ready with questions like he actually wants to know.” Aru awkwardly agrees. It’s the truth. She hasn’t met many Karans out there, quiet men yes, polite men even, but rarely men who don’t display a little misogyny when one knows them better — in the kind of company they tolerate, in their silence when other men speak, a silence that Aru knows translates (if not literally) then by omission — into camaraderie. She doesn’t want to rub Karan in the faces of other heterosexual women looking to date.

She teaches at a school ten minutes away from home. She’s always taught there. They chose their apartment because of the school, which she had chosen because it was close to where her parents live. Maya is dropped off at her grandparents in the mornings and picked up in the afternoons. Aru used to walk back from the school in passable weather to her parents’ house till a man had trailed her in his beaten down Alto, slowly and nonchalantly, as if second gear was the only one he’d ever driven in. He pulled up ahead of her, opened the passenger door and tried to say something. ‘Tried’ is a strange word for the experience. Did he gesture for her to get in? She may have imagined it.

Perhaps the man had merely needed directions. The one-ways and underpasses were a labyrinth. Still, she now instinctively glares at men on the street who get too close as they pass by on the narrow pavement. The projected anger is primal, intended to unnerve the man long enough to make one’s escape. She smiles at her friends’ boyfriends and husbands, leans forward and places her elbows on the table when they casually drape their arm around the back of her chair. It’s all very laidback — they never notice the strained smile on their girlfriends’ faces.

Then, there are her own male friends, chosen and inherited. When drunk, they pat her knee and hold her in protracted hugs. She loves them; they love her. She just doesn’t drink with them if she can help it, except an old school friend who never crosses lines, who occasionally plants a kiss on her hair but it is free of desire, filled only with a light assurance.

In the days after the news, she takes over the kitchen. There is no handover communicated; Karan is simply slow, lingering in bed, tentative when he looks at his wife and daughter. She’s saddened by this at first and, later, annoyed. She takes the appearance of the food on the breakfast table for granted, is impatient even if her coffee is running late. Every time he makes eggs, he makes them a little differently. Sometimes, there are olives. Other times, the eggs have been fried inside a slice of bell pepper. Sometimes there are potato, tomato and onion stacked in the pan over which eggs and cheese are added. She does her share. But he does his with quiet pride — shooing her away when she makes any effort to clear up. When they have overnight guests — outstation friends or relatives — it embarrasses her to notice how poorly they suppress their surprise as she hands him her emptied plate without thinking, the butter and breadcrumbs still shining on the surface.

She wonders if she has to be the one to offer him absolution. I know you are good. I know you would never do what he did. You can’t blame yourself. Instead, she asks if he’s spoken to him. There is no question as to who the ‘him’ is. He looks stricken, he doesn’t bring it up himself. During the first few days, he’d been unreserved. He told her he was afraid of his byline appearing at such a time. As far as she knows, there was no news on the socials about his brother. She’d searched high and low. “It’s a time to listen,” an actress says in an interview, effortlessly dodging a question about the allegations against her brother-in-law. Aru has been reading and watching as if the links will lead her somewhere clear. She bets her husband is reading up too and is coming across “If you keep them in your life, you are part of the problem,” and “There are only two ways to respond when —”. The shame isn’t quite hers, but she feels the claustrophobic proximity of it for days and weeks. She dreads the email notifications on her phone — she’s scared people will have questions for her.

The woman is on her mind. The few facts she knows — the woman has chosen to tell friends and chosen not to post publicly about it so far, she’s part of an extended circle of friends, her friends support her, her one wish is not to have to hang out with him again, she’s told her few confidants that “she’s not out to destroy his life.” Aru concludes that she can’t reach out to the woman without coming off intimidating. She wants some other way to distance herself from all the times he’s sat at her table, all the times he’s been decent to her.

She holds her daughter in the mornings. She’d hold Karan too if she could. When he goes back to waking before her, to ladling scrambled eggs onto multigrain toast just as she’s finishing her coffee, she’s relieved. Perhaps, it can all stay dormant. There are mushrooms in the eggs this morning. There’s time for tomorrow.

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