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February 03, 2018

The Ex Factor

Text by Gouri Dange. Illustration by Rutuja Patil

In a short story written exclusively for us by Gouri Dange, discover how children use humour to tackle an old discomforting secret that painfully comes right out into the open

“We’ve got to tell them, Viva,” Ashwin had said softly, firmly.

Can there be the ‘perfect time’ to tell your kids that you were married to someone else before you met their father? Viva and Ashwin had thought at various times, that they would tell them together, perhaps when the twins were 14 or 15. But it simply hadn’t happened. There would be the inevitable questions, about why she left, what he was like; details. And it seemed unfair to simply tell them the bare facts and leave no room for questions. But why should young minds have to deal with the concept of ugly, cat-and-mouse mind games, about cruelty that was never physical, but damaging in a way that dawns on you slowly? Why should they have to hear about the most unsavoury 108 weeks of their mother’s early life?

For long, they were too young, and it did not seem relevant at all, and so it never came up. But she would have to some day, she knew. She had played it many times in her head, what she would say about it and what they would ask, at various stages of their growing years, but no time seemed an appropriate time.

Till it started becoming awkwardly late. The twins were 18 now, and it became important to tell them, because her ex-husband Sanjeev Bisht was now a star diplomat, all dashing and media-‘darlingish’, and his first marriage and her name might just get mentioned in some context in the papers.

Sure enough, there he was one day in a TV interview. It was the first time that she was watching him speak after she had exited his life, and even from as far away as 20 years, her flesh crawled, but she could not switch channels. After some talk about his latest plum posting, the anchor asked him, all man-to-man (or mano a mano, as the anchor chose to call it, using the phrase in self-conscious inverted commas) about whether he was planning to lose his title as the diplomatic services’ most eligible bachelor soon. Sanjeev put on a haunted expression, paused eloquently, sank his voice to a shy murmur, and said that the end of his first marriage had shattered him and maybe only now was he able to ‘swim out of his emotional well’.

Ashwin had frozen in front of the TV when he heard this sentence and had muttered, “Now if that isn’t what is called a chick-bait line, I don’t know what is. What a shit this guy is.” Apparently it’s playing a heartbroken man with an abiding old wound and shyly showing the scars that gets you the girls. Even the male anchor looked suitably impressed and thrilled at this reluctant little revelation that he believed he had teased out from Sanjeev on his show.

Viva couldn’t spot the remote, so she snapped off the TV switch on the wall. Sanjeev’s handsome, insincere face hung between her and Ashwin for a few minutes after the TV went off. She felt the early sign of that tunnel-vision thing start up again in her head, after years of being rid of it. Just for some seconds, the living room walls threatened to converge and turn her into a sandwich, but they went back to their places when the TV was switched off and she took five measured breaths.

She had forgotten the effect of listening to Sanjeev’s deceptively confiding voice and his wily version of things. The lasagna of lies layered with half-truths layered with lies again, peppered with insinuations that he cooked up so easily and fed to his prey. She felt a faint residue of all of that rising up in her throat. She had thought he had been purged from her digestive track, eliminated from her blood stream, flushed out of her nervous system and leached from her musculoskeletal structure. But, apparently not fully so.

Ashwin noisily opened a packet of wafers, and busied himself making them both a vodka drink — his signature pearl swirl. Usually he drank whisky and made her or any other woman guest the ‘girl drinks’ — cocktails or a shandy. Today Viva saw that he was signalling his solidarity by drinking the pearl swirl with her. Only, his glass rim he salted, while on hers there was superfine sugar.

She took a sip of her drink. The sugar on the rim popped and crackled in her mouth — a complete surprise; she had never met this kind of sugar before. Ashwin had bought it and put it away in his little bar. When Viva laughed at the sensation, in spite of her shock at seeing Sanjeev on TV, Ashwin came over and kissed her quietly. And then said, “Viva, it really is time we told the kids about Sanjeev and got it out of the way.”

When you tell someone about 108 deformed weeks of your life in just the headlines, you sound arbitrary and jagged and a hasty decision maker to your own ears. But some years later Viva had met Ashwin, who knew to read between, under and over the lines and the margin notes too, of those 108 weeks.

That night, they sat the kids down and told them. They sat stock-still, and digested it quietly. They only asked one question each: “Are you in touch with him?” And “Are you still scared of him?” To which they could both answer a relieved no. Viva had got a wordless hug from them.

For a few weeks after it was out in the open, there were unasked questions in the air, little considerate gestures towards her and a few tangential queries about her life in America with her first husband. Shruti asked her to show her what a divorce decree looked like. Rishabh said to her, ‘Shut up, idiot’ but Viva dug out the 25-year-old paper and showed it to them. Including the undertaking from their Nana that she was at the time unstable and unfit, and hence the divorce — the thing Sanjeev was at pains to establish, in case Viva opened her mouth about his proclivities in his diplomatic circles, and nixed his promotions.

Unfit and unstable, Viva more or less was at the time, she told her children. She had, towards the end of her marriage back then, begun to tremble and would have to excuse herself at almost every official dinner, however much she tried to hold it together. And sometimes she would just burst out laughing — perhaps in sheer relief that someone else, besides her, was being subjected to Sanjeev’s pretend-innocent games.

He would cleverly engineer the conversation with guests so that he could use a word, and watch them to see if they knew its meaning. Trope, for instance, was a great favourite; counter-intuitive and paradigm also came along in the same evening, as did semiotics. Schrödinger’s cat was dragged in often, especially if there were some academics or scientists who he particularly wanted to impress. Occam’s razor was another offhand reference Sanjeev often made. He would use the word quotidian when all he wanted to say was everyday. Another favourite was the word milquetoast. However many times Viva looked it up, the meaning would not stay in her head.

Since she did not come from a fancy Himalayan foothills school, she didn’t know a lot of these words, and Sanjeev would look skyward if she asked what they meant. She soon stopped asking, and quietly looked up the words. When sometimes he caught her doing that, he would smile and laugh and hug her and call her his little ‘ghaatan from St Boondocks High School’. But it soon dawned on Viva that this was only a pretend sweetness. And that she better not relax too much.

She was just 25 then, and her housekeeping skills were another area of ‘concern’ for Sanjeev. The fridge was either too bare or overflowing and the old daal that she threw out was wasting dollars but the one that she kept and served reheated was playing with his health and she was being such a desi miserly sort. When they had company, the look of disappointment or the disparaging jokes about her cooking would be sometimes combined with a look of approval from across the room for something that someone praised. But Viva was to learn that look was simply a brief reprieve.

Viva had at one stage stopped looking up meanings or usage in the dictionary and given up on trying so hard to cook well; it was simply easier to give up and let him sneer at her education, her small-townness, her parents, her lack of culinary skills — the whole gamut. She had begun to lose weight and the menacing tunnel-vision thing would hit her just about dinner time. She once said out loud, much to Sanjeev’s utter disgust, one night when they had guests over that “the walls were looking like a chessboard or the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” as her sense of being boxed in overwhelmed her.

One of the older women guests had suggested that she lie down and softly asked her whether she was likely to be pregnant. Viva was too young to see that other people around were not necessarily impressed or intimidated by Sanjeev, but now in hindsight, it became clear to her that some of the older ones remained outside the purview of all that fake-casual-intellectual charm and thought of him as a bit of a highly knowledgeable pompous ass. Nobody knew about his sadistic side, though.

He had many devices, verbal and silent, which amounted to putting an invisible tripwire across your path. And then he would either watch coolly as you fell, or come rushing up to help you with a great show of concern. With an encyclopedic knowledge of the world, he could smilingly draw someone into a conversation about that person’s area of expertise. Starting most of these conversations with a completely false disclaimer. “I know next to nothing about Mughal era paintings, but could you….” he would ask someone who said they worked in a museum in this field. His innocent-seeming question would be about something esoteric and less-known about the subject; he would then watch as the person struggled to reply or simply admitted, ‘I don’t know.’ Continuing to claim that he knew so little, Sanjeev would then proceed to provide that detail, and end with a deferential, “But I could be wrong — you’re the expert. Perhaps you could check it up.”

It had come to a stage when, even if the pressure was off her, and she was not being targeted that evening, Viva would stand in agonised silence as Sanjeev worked his way quietly and smoothly around a room full of unsuspecting people.

Viva filtered much of this very disturbing information about her first marriage while talking about it to her kids. She omitted to tell them that, towards the end of her stay there, she would read news reports about how, when Lake Michigan in front of her home froze over in winter, some reckless freaks would try to drive their car on the lake. Sometimes the ice cracked and they had to be fished out, dead or alive. At the time, just before she virtually fled to India, Viva had begun to want to one of those reckless freaks.

She only told Shruti and Rishabh that she had begun to feel listless and tired and claustrophobic in the marriage — that her first husband was someone who delighted in arbitrarily changing the goal posts and she had been too young to read the signs and had kept trying to work it out. And that she had taken to walking along Lake Shore Drive for miles, alone, with the sharp Lake Michigan breeze numbing her face even on a June summer afternoon. She would cook, open out the apartment for airing (because Sanjeev would get livid if the place smelt of Indian food, though he wanted only Indian food cooked at home), and then walk blindly for an hour, stopping finally to watch the boats and the greedy clamouring gulls on the marina.

At first, people tip-toe around some unsavoury new family secret or development. In a while, they deal with it by pulling it into the joking world; first tentatively and then full-on. There should be a word for that in-between period when everyone is dealing with the horror or sadness, and another word for the moment when the tip-toeing ends and the first joking reference is made.

Some weeks after her teenaged children heard about Viva’s first marriage, it was her son Rishabh who marked the departure from the grim to the guffawing, by referring to ‘that Sanjeev Sicko’ when he spotted him in the newspaper. And both the kids had begun to use elaborately big words with a straight face. When Viva told them about the greedy gulls grabbing her French fries on the Chicago wharf, he had said, “Ah, what obstreperous gulls.” His sister said “What?? O-b-s-t-r-e-p-e-r-o-u-s? is that even a word?” And Rishabh had said haughtily, in what was a pretty good imitation of Sanjeev, “Go look it up…. God…what kind of school did you go to?”

Highfalutin, pretentious words or phrases were now used in their home with invisible quote marks. And just like that, Sanjeev Sicko became less and less of a flesh and blood person; till he was finally reduced to something of a cardboard cut-out, a caricature, at which darts were thrown off and on, just for laughs. He held high office in the outside world now, and his picture would quite regularly jump out at them from a newspaper or the television. But for Viva, those images, his features leached and bleached of their significance, were now just a random pattern of ink and pixel points.

Suddenly it was okay, Viva realised, to simply laugh off those 108 weeks in hell, from long ago. That moment had arrived — when the discomforting past is rebirthed as ludicrous and laughable. And the midwives of this moment were her children.

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