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November 17, 2012

Being Amrita!

Illustration by Kunal Kundu.

Verve presents an extract from Shobhaa De’s new novel, Sethji

Amrita snapped herself back to the present. She had work to do. She made her way back into Suraj’s room. She crossed it swiftly and made for the heavy steel locker that stood on a pile of old trunks with gaudy pink lotuses painted on them. She could hear Suraj moaning as he lay doubled up on the floor.

‘The keys,’ she commanded her brother-in-law. ‘Where have you kept them? Quick! We don’t have time to waste. Wash up, get dressed. I’ll help you pack your things. But first – the keys.’ Suraj continued to groan and refused to respond. In five long strides Amrita was by his side, shaking him roughly. He lunged at her and clung to her knees whimpering, ‘Bhabhiji . . . I am sorry . . . I didn’t mean it . . . God knows what happened . . . please tell Babuji to forgive me . . . it was an accident.’ Amrita shook herself free and extended her hand. ‘Keys. Just give me the keys.’ Suraj gestured to the side table next to the big armchair. Amrita walked towards it, barking orders at Suraj all the time. ‘Where do you keep your passport? You have to get out of the country immediately. Take just a small suitcase with a change of clothes. I’ll arrange for a new cell phone and SIM card. Remember just one thing in case you are caught – you are innocent until proven guilty. Keep mum. Say nothing. Leave it to me. But for now, just get up and get out. Do it before Babuji gets back from the meeting and kills you. One more thing – hand me your gun.’

Suraj whined, ‘But why? I need my gun. What if someone harms me? How will I defend myself? I can’t give you the gun. Please, take everything but not my gun.’ Amrita looked at her brother-in-law and narrowed her eyes before saying contemptuously, ‘The gun won’t protect you from your fate, Surajji. Now hurry up. Your pick-up will be here soon. Go take a shower quickly. I’ll be back to help you pack.’ With this she locked away Suraj’s gun in his safe, keeping the keys with her.

Amrita briskly crossed the dimly lit corridor that led to her part of the sprawling bungalow. She heard the mocking cry of a fat, pregnant lizard that lived behind the heavy reed curtains lining the corridor. It was an ominous sign. She remembered her mother’s words. When a lizard calls thrice, it is warning you: ‘Satya hai, satya hai, satya hai.’ What was the horrible truth waiting to confront Sethji’s family now? Amrita also noticed a pale owl swooping down noiselessly to grab a garden toad calling out to its mate. Another ominous sign! An albino owl spotted during daylight hours?

As she entered her spacious, fragrant bedroom, Amrita felt irrationally calm. Amrita had a weakness for fragrances of all kinds. Traditional dhoop was lit at dusk every evening, and the household help had been instructed to light aromatic candles right before her afternoon siesta. Amrita hoarded her precious collection of exotic vials of concentrated oils from across the world. She frowned at the sight of Srichand, her husband, snoring unconcernedly on their carved four-poster bed. For just a brief second or two, she felt protective towards the man who seemed to have not a care in the world. He ate well, slept well and lived well. Srichand was the baby they could never have.

Poor Srichand. The one thing he invariably failed at was to fulfil his haughty wife’s sexual desires. His clumsy attempts to pleasure her always ended with a sharp slap across his straying wrist – a signal for him to stop and leave her alone. But even those frequent rebuffs did not upset sweet, docile Srichand. He was too good-natured to protest or demand his conjugal rights. Just once he’d shown her a newspaper report which said the Supreme Court of India had deemed it ‘cruelty’ if a spouse refused sex. Amrita had scanned the newspaper and retorted sharply, ‘Rubbish! It’s the other way around. If a woman doesn’t want it, she doesn’t want it!’ Srichand had promptly retired to his favourite divan and switched on the huge flat-screen television mounted on the wall opposite their bed – a gift from one of Babuji’s supporters who had the dealership of the latest TV sets imported from Korea. ‘Come on, India!’ Srichand had cheered the losing cricket team, oblivious of Amrita’s contempt for his own uninspiring performance.

Amrita sniffed the air. Wrong fragrance! It should have been khus – wasn’t it Thursday today? She’d definitely pull up her maid tomorrow morning. Phoolrani had become moody and dreamy ever since she had begun an affair with Srichand’s sturdy, swarthy driver-cum-bodyguard. Amrita wondered if Phoolrani occasionally dabbed herself with her mistress’s all-time favourite perfume, the heady, clingy Joy that was given a place of honour on her overcrammed dressing table.

It was the one Srichand had said he couldn’t bear to smell on any other woman! Amrita had suppressed a smile, coiled her hair, glanced sideways at him and pottered around the room, trailing Joy as she moved around restlessly.

That evening her own joylessness had struck her as she’d presided over Sethji’s midnight bhojan, during which he plotted his rival’s downfall. While serving the men oily parathas, Amrita had been struck by the absurdity of her own position in this strange household. Take the guard dogs. Despite the best imported dog food, and a vet on call, those dogs remained just that – guard dogs. They were trained to know their place and stay there. Their ‘job’ was to guard the family. Love and feelings didn’t come into the picture. They adored Suraj and Srichand and the brothers were affectionate towards them but regarded them as part of the furniture, occasionally taking them for a walk or spending time with them or worrying about their health. Rocky 1 and Rocky 2, Suraj had grandly christened them when they’d arrived after a tiring smuggling operation that involved slippery agents in Bangkok. She often felt her place in this house was like that of those two dogs. She had everything she could possibly desire – but did she have the things she most wanted?

As Amrita reorganised the contents of her handbag and made sure her credit cards were secure in the familiar ostrich skin holder, she thought about the strange relationship she shared with Sethji, and how it had started soon after she moved into his home as a reluctant bride. He’d found her crying in her bedroom one Sunday afternoon, when Srichand was out playing golf. She had hastily wiped her tears and pretended to cough in order to cover up her sobs. Sethji had walked up to her wordlessly and held her in his arms. Amrita had felt immensely comforted, despite herself. Here she was being intimately embraced by a man she loathed on every level. And yet, she was reluctant to get out of his grasp.

In her confusion, she hadn’t realised that Sethji’s hands had strayed and moved slowly down to caress her hips, while the other hand cupped her right breast. She tried to push him away but he held her too firmly. He lay down next to her and raised her sari above her knees while he pinned her down with his other hand. Amrita tried to bite him, kick him, but he was too strong for her. Soon she felt as if she was in a trance and gave up struggling. It felt too inevitable. She’d closed her eyes, clenched her fists. Sethji did not attempt to kiss her mouth, restricting his kisses to her thighs, while his hands remained on her breasts, playing surprisingly gently with her nipples. Soon he’d entered her, after expertly removing her panties with a single tug. She didn’t realise she was aroused until he was inside her. She should have been hurt, but instead she was wet, ready for him.

He repeated her name over and over again as he groaned and moaned, and accelerated the pace of his thrusts. Amrita tried to stop herself, but wave after wave of sensation entered her. She couldn’t control herself and came in a shudder alongside him. Amrita was numb when her father-in-law left the room.

She should have felt violated and sullied, she told herself. But that was not the truth. In an inexplicable way, Amrita felt complete. What had just happened? She had no answer. The self-hate came later.

But today was no day for such thoughts, she told herself tiredly. Srichand remained asleep, undisturbed by the storms outside, or the ones inside her head. Watching him, Amrita let out a sigh of relief. The less her husband knew about ‘this’ – or anything else, for that matter – the better. Amrita picked up the cell phone from her dressing table and tiptoed out of the room to make another call to Arun Mehta

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