[Issue 16 / Feb 16]
I watched from my office’s tenth floor window, the exodus for home—the eagerness of a Friday evening release from work. I couldn’t ‘see’ pharaohs, lions, dogs or babies in lonely clouds any more. They had darkened and nudged themselves into a billowy grey tent. A steady breeze dislodged leaves and chased them over the tastefully landscaped gardens of Enigma-Soft (India) Ltd, and then stirred scraps of paper and plastic over stray dogs in the slum outside. Distant rumbles promised a smashing downpour and traffic jams of epic proportions. I wished Gita would hurry.
Cries of ‘Happy week-end’ and ‘What plans?’ arced over the cubicles—a game of Frisbee with words. I listened to plans for trekking, cycling, movies, and outings. My standard response after Nakul was born has been, “Thanks, same to you,” and, “No plans.”
Despite these plans, everyone carried work home; the company laptop handcuffed you to appraisals and bonuses. We worked when our bosses in Seattle were asleep and then worked some more when they were awake. For a change, I planned to leave my ‘handcuffs’ at office that weekend.
“Hey Shyam, how’re Gita and the little one?” Sharad asked.
“They’re fine,” I said.
“Gita’s still with Karma Tech?”
“Say ‘hi’ to her from me. Our team’s never been the same since she left.”
“Huh…okay. Enjoy your weekend.”
After four torturous years of teaching Computer Science in colleges to headstrong teenagers who believed they knew a lot more than their teachers or Bill Gates himself, I joined Enigma-Soft’s software testing team and met Gita.
Marriage bureaus, relatives, and horoscopes connived to bind us together for life. After our engagement, I opted for a transfer to the Quality Department. Technically at work, she was my senior. To ease my discomfort, she found a position with Karma Tech, a start-up. Her office was three buildings away from mine.
Gita has had it easy—educated parents, good convent education in Bangalore, degree from a top engineering college and campus placement to Enigma-Soft. Smooth journey, no hiccups.
Gita’s message winked its way into my phone screen: “C U at 5:30.” I grabbed my lunch bag and took the elevator to the basement parking lot. I eased my grey Santro into traffic and drove down to where Gita waited.
“Hi.” Gita threw her laptop and lunch bags on the back seat. She fixed her seat-belt and sneezed. Fat raindrops drummed impatiently on the roof. The scent of wet earth wafted inside the car before I rolled up the windows.
“Hi. Didn’t we agree not to work this weekend?” I gestured towards her laptop.
“Sorry, my team’s got a release planned next week, some last minute reports to send. How was your day?”
Endless lines of vehicles nosed ahead like bright bugs—a pretty sight, no doubt, to wax eloquent from an airplane window or a hill resort. I swore at a biker who cut across from our left; office life mirrored on congested roads—the mad race to get and stay ahead.
“Shyam, don’t curse. Amma said Nakul was chanting the other day, ‘buddy foo, buddy foo’.”
“Huh?” So I’m blamed if our son picks up unnecessary words faster than nursery rhymes.
We left Nakul with Gita’s parents every morning on our way (or rather, out of our way) to work and picked him up on our way home. And ‘our home’ was fifteen kilometers away. Her father is a retired Government official. He got a floor each for Gita and her elder sister, Vanaja constructed above his house. Vanaja settled in Muscat after her wedding. And I never fell for the sentimental, ‘You are our son’ trap. My own parents live with my elder brothers in a village near Shimoga.
“Shyam, December already. We need to finalize a school for Nakul.”
Now a school had to be found near her parents’ house, no choice. Our apartment complex had two hundred apartments filled with strangers. We’d seen all sorts of tragedies make headlines there: two kids drowned in the swimming pool, sexual abuse by a watchman, and abuse by maids babysitting toddlers. Gita couldn’t quit work to stay at home with Nakul. The EMIs for the flat and other luxuries had to be taken care of—jointly. Life was one crazy dog chasing its tail.
“Shyam, can you stop here? We need fruits.”
I eased the car to a stop. “Hurry up, Gita. Its half past six, already. We promised Nakul a visit to the park.”
But then, Friday evenings began with broken promises. We haven’t gone cycling or trekking in ages. Every day, my fancy Nikon camera eyed me malevolently like a one-eyed Cyclops, from its perch between my clothes. Our cycles were in the garage in Gita’s parents’ place (washed and garlanded every Ayudha puja). It’s all very well for bosses to exhort employees to strive for work-life balance. Work-life balance had become a see-saw with the fat kid on one end refusing to let the hollering skinny kid on the other end down.
I often wondered where we’d head at this rate. We were like needles of an industrious seamstress. Every morning we emerged, sharp and shining, and embroidered a pattern for long hours. We believed we were creating a beautiful tapestry of success, comfort, and wealth. Most after-hours were spent behind this tapestry—in the uncomfortable company of dropped stitches and broken threads.
Gita returned with four polythene bags contoured with fruits. Fruits for us, fruits for her parents.
I had raged once, “Why should there be a duplicate of almost everything we buy?” Gita remained undeterred. Her deceptive bovine expression hid a sharp intellect. Her parents refused her largesse, but she thrust it down their grateful throats, all the same.
“Shyam, let’s watch a movie tomorrow.” She settled the bags near her feet.
“If we stay overnight with my parents, we can leave Nakul with them. After the movie we’ll buy the portrait lens for your camera.”
“Haven’t we loads of work in our flat?”
“I’ll manage.” She smiled.
I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel. “Why portrait lens?”
“It’s for your birthday, mister absent-minded Shyam.”
Gita fiddled with the radio, and songs of movies we’d never watched usurped the silence. We didn’t sing along, we didn’t know the lyrics anymore.
Vasant Nagar, where her parents lived, was a haven for retired pensioners. I drove along the road that sloped up in front of her parents’ house and parked. Nakul abandoned his tricycle and jumped up and down when he saw the car. He chanted, “One round, one round.” Gita’s father helped Nakul to the back seat. Nakul chattered nonstop as he peered between the two front seats. Every evening, we were prodigal parents welcomed back into his fold. I felt my tiredness disappear. Here was the one little person who made our life worthwhile, the imbalance notwithstanding.
After the customary lap around the park, I parked the car again. Gita tried to disengage Nakul’s hands from around her neck.
Gita’s mother waited at the gate. “Come inside. Hot coffee and snacks are ready. Nakul, your parents are tired. Come to Ajji.”
The long rings of the landline telephone reached the road. “That must be Vanaja’s call,” Gita’s father said, and they both rushed inside.
“Gita, take Nakul inside. I’ll get the bags.” I turned to the backseat.
“Shyam, he’ll throw a tantrum. He wants another ride.”
“Not now, later.” I walked through the open gates, reached the main door and turned. Gita stood behind me with the fruit bags.
A grey shadow moved down the road. I dropped the bags and screamed, “Oh my God! Is Nakul in the car?”
The car rolled down the slope towards the busy main road. I ran with outstretched hands, shouting all the way. I fell against the car, yanked the front passenger door open and threw myself inside, not before the tar road reached through my pant and scraped my knees. Nakul sat on the back seat and sucked his thumb. I twisted the steering wheel to divert the car to where the park fencing was. There was a resounding crash and we stopped. I saw the telephone pole totter uncertainly. I pulled Nakul from between the two front seats and covered him with my body. The pole crashed on the roof of the car. A few seconds later I flung the door open and jumped out with Nakul. We rolled on the road together. Nakul shrieked, “Amma, Amma,” as he struggled out of my arms.
My screams had dragged out a good-sized crowd. I was surrounded by excited pensioners and an odd milkman or two. I staggered across the road and sat on the pavement. I felt as if someone wearing nailed boots had marched all over my body.
A neighbor handed me a glass of water and hauled out a plastic chair. Some old men went to inspect the damage to my car. They also checked the pole and returned to assure their wives that their telephone connections were intact. Like a wind-up toy my heart slowed. Where was Nakul?
Gita ran down the slope followed by her parents. A neighbor handed Nakul to her. People peered through the park hedges. I listened to many theories on what happened: weak hand-brakes, neutral gear, and narratives of other ‘more’ horrific accidents. People loved to share details of the ‘near-misses’ in their life; it did nothing to make me feel better.
“Shyam, are you alright? Come—” Gita bent down to touch my shoulder.
Something hot and sharp unwound itself instantly and lent power to my voice. “I told you to take Nakul inside!”
I was like a lonely climber facing a silent valley tempted to shout just to hear his voice echoed from silent mountains. “But did you listen? No!”
Gita’s father struggled to get me standing. I stayed glued to the pavement. How many clinics and temples did we visit, before IVF produced this miracle—Nakul?
Gita’s father began, “What presence of mind! Running inside and diverting the car, God knows what would have —”
“She’s a bitch, an educated bloody bitch!”
Gita’s father jumped back, as if an uncaring motorist just tore on a puddle in front of him. Voices hushed me. Gita buried her face in Nakul’s shoulder.
“Leaving a three-year-old unattended in the car? What a careless bitch. What if the car had reached the main road?”
“Oh Shyam, God has been kind. You saved your son’s life. Come inside and rest. First, a hot cup of coffee with snacks, then we’ll visit a doctor for your leg,” Gita’s mother urged, offering food, her panacea for all troubles.
Daylight remained in lonely pockets under streetlights; darkness soaked the world around me. I knew a part of me had run down the slope that evening, beyond recall.
“She’s an educated fool. Her useless medals and trophies line your showcase. Now you can flaunt this dented car as well.”
“Poor children, they work so hard. It’s the strain,” Gita’s mother explained to her round-eyed neighbors. I felt hewn of granite and splayed my legs wider on the wet pavement. I savored an old freedom—a license to set my tongue and inhibitions free—I’d reveled in, when I’d played the role of a drunk or a lunatic in college plays.
Light rain fell in straight lines on Gita’s father as he stood undecided under a lamp post outside his house. He looked like a puppet held by silver beaded strings. Water slid off the plastic chair near me making a waterfall. I was an actor on the empty stage, long after the act was over and the audience had left.
I didn’t resist when a few men led me home.
Fortified by hot food and painkillers, I lay awake on the huge double bed in the guest room.
“Gita, Gita…” I whispered.
“Shh…Shyam, don’t apologize. It’s okay, really. Try to sleep.”
Apologize? Whatever for? I only wanted to know where the original car insurance documents were.
The next morning I borrowed my father-in-law’s old car to go home. Nakul had perked up but wanted to stay back with his grandparents.
I turned the ignition. Nakul stood at the gate with Gita’s parents. Gita rolled down the window to wave to them.
“Ajji, what does ‘bitch’ mean?” Nakul asked, as he tugged at his grandmother’s sari. She picked him up and pointed to the crows on a tree.
I clenched the steering wheel. Gita examined her nails as if they’d materialized overnight.
“Tell me, tell me!” Nakul pulled at his grandmother’s chin.
As we drove away I heard Gita’s father say in a clear, sad voice, “Bitch is a dog’s wife.”