winner-open-road-review-short-story-prize-2016-in-partnership-with-nhp-centreSrila stood toweling her hair in front of a full-length mirror. The mild October
sun washed the room in a soft light and highlighted the silver strands that
seemed to have multiplied in her short, curly hair in the last few months.

“What do you think, Gigi? Is your mum an old woman now? Or is she just
crazy?”

Gigi contemplated Srila from her puddle of sunlight on the floor, purring
audibly even from the distance across the room. Her amber eyes glowed with
contentment. She blinked lazily, stretching her front limbs in that perfectly
graceful way that only cats seemed to achieve. Srila had read somewhere,
probably online, that when cats blinked slowly at you, it was their equivalent
of blowing a kiss. She liked that.

Just like Srila’s white hair had become more prominent, Gigi’s tawny stripes
had suddenly come into their own, making the cat look more and more like
an exquisite, miniature tiger. “OK, enough admiration for now. It’s time for
me to go.”

Srila put on her glasses, sleek and rectangular in metallic blue, and looked at
herself again. Her hair suddenly seemed very short and the glasses looked
alien on her. She had become a harder, more angular version of herself. Zubin
had never seen her like this. But that shouldn’t matter now.

She checked her small bag, mentally ticking off all the essential things she
would require for two days away. Underwear, socks, t-shirt, sweatpants,
sweater, shawl, toothpaste, moisturizer, mosquito repellent, torch. How very
proper. I should take a book. She grabbed the nearest one, a well-worn copy of
Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which she hadn’t read in years and threw it
in her bag.

Srila quickly checked the handwritten to-do list that she had stuck on the
fridge for her friend who would be arriving shortly to cat-sit.

Time to leave. Have I left anything out? Gas switched off, balcony locked,
windows shut, bye Gigi, I love you, baby, I’ll be home soon. She locked the door,
hid the key beneath the dusty Welcome mat for her friend and stood still for a
moment, a moment of panic overwhelming her.

What the hell am I doing?

*

Zubin’s email had arrived almost a month ago. She had stared at it for so long
that the screensaver had come on, three yellow ping-pong balls bouncing
mindlessly against the black backdrop of the computer at work. Then she hit
the spacebar and it appeared again.

from: Zubin R
to: Srila K

date: Tue, Sep 4, 2012 at 1.32 pm
subject:

Dear Queenie,
It’s been almost 8 months. But next month is October, and it would have been 7 years. I’m
still planning to go. Will you come?

Think about it. Please.

Z.

It took Srila a few hours before she typed her response, and another day
before she finally hit send.

*

Zubin woke before dawn. The tent was still dark, and Srila was fast sleep in
the single bed a few feet away from his. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness,
he could make out the gentle rise and fall of Srila’s breathing under the quilt.
My wife, he thought. Can I still call her that, even in my head?

He swung his legs off the bed, slipping his feet into beat up Crocs. He
splashed his face with the ice-cold water in the basin and stepped out. No one
else seemed to be up, but there was a reassuring smell of chai wafting from
the dining tent a short distance away. He wandered in that direction, hoping
for a cup. A small man stood by a makeshift stove just outside the tent,
stirring an enormous pot of dark, strong looking tea.

“Good morning, Sahib!” he smiled.

“Good morning. A cup of tea, please.”

“Of course. Breakfast will be in an hour.”

“That’s fine.” Zubin accepted the steaming mug gratefully.

He sipped the tea slowly. Only the occasional shrill twittering of a bird
punctuated the comfortable silence.

“First time for you and Memsahib in Ranthambore?”

“Yes.” Hopefully his curt reply was discouraging, but just in case, Zubin
walked back to his tent after thanking the cook. He lit a cigarette and took a
deep drag, staring at the dark cluster of trees near his tent. The air was now
filled with the rustle of creatures just waking, and the light had changed from
midnight blue to a soft mauve, with the stars softly fading away. Inside the
tent, he could hear Srila moving around. Finally she poked her head through
the opening in the tent. Zubin was staring right at her. She smiled shyly and
stepped out. Once again, Zubin was startled. Her hair. Where had it all gone?

*

He almost didn’t recognize her when he had gone to the station to pick her up
the previous evening. She had been standing on the platform, looking into the
distance, and Zubin had stopped short of walking right past her. When she
saw him she smiled and he felt like he had been punched in the gut. Her long
curly hair was gone, cut very short just above her ears, and suddenly so full of
silver. She was wearing severe looking glasses, and her face looked drawn,
tight. But her eyes were the same. Actually, she was just the same. Except that
everything was different.

Nine months. Enough time for them to have had a baby. That’s how long he
had not seen her, spoken to her, communicated with her. “Zubin!” she said.
Not Zoobisoux, not Zoo, not Zoobie. Zubin. It was his name, after all.

He reached out and touched her shoulder. “Queenie.” It was hard to keep his
voice from shaking.

He was the only one who called her that. Twelve years ago, on a particularly
brutal summer day, Srila had come to his tiny barsati on Lodhi Road. She was
red in the face, her thin cotton kurta clinging to her and her long hair in
complete disarray. She stood at his doorway, wiping her forehead with her
sleeve. “It’s so hot. I feel like I’m going to pass out. Can I bathe here?”
Zubin was taken aback. Srila was not someone he knew well – they had some
common friends from college even though she was a few years younger than
him, and he recognized her immediately from the group of interns on
probation at the publishing house he worked with. He’d had a get together at
his place a few months ago, and she had come with a friend. They never
really chatted, although he remembered admiring her hair which she had
adorned with a single champa flower. He hadn’t even noticed when she and
her friend had left. It was one of those parties which got out of hand with a lot
of strangers getting drunk and a ridiculous mess he had to clean up the next
day. Srila had left work before completing her internship, and he had heard
she was now involved with craft design. And here she was now.

“Zubin, right? I’m sorry, I know this is a crazy imposition, but I was nearby
and I thought I’d take a chance… I feel like I’ll faint if I’m outside any longer.
The bus is taking forever.”

“Of course! Come in, you want some water?” Zubin was suddenly aware of
how tiny and messy his barsati was. Srila came in, dumped her bag and
gulped down the glass of water he offered her. She strolled around, looking at
his small shelf of books, his CD collection, the measly collection of paintings
on the wall. “So... about that bath…?”

Is she serious? Zubin thought. “The bathroom’s just down there,” he pointed.
She had bathed, freshened up, they had shared a cigarette and then she left.
Strange girl, thought Zubin. But he already knew he wanted to get to know
her.

It was only a matter of time before Srila started dropping in more frequently,
first with a book, then some flowers, then ‘just because’. Her company was
soothing, and Zubin loved her calm presence in his miniscule space. He
enjoyed her surprise visits and getting to know her bit by bit. Soon he kept a
small bottle of Sunsilk shampoo ready for her. When the weather was
pleasant, they would drag the floor cushions out to the terrace and enjoy the
breeze. Otherwise they would sit under the lazily clanging fan and listen to
music in companionable silence while he looked at manuscripts and she
sketched. One muggy afternoon a few weeks after her first surprise visit,
Zubin was dozing off when Srila emerged from the bathroom, wrapped in
only a towel. Her waist length hair was dripping wet, and Zubin was
wakened by the cool, damp and fragrant tendrils of her hair being dragged
slowly across his chest. Srila’s face was directly above his, and he had no
choice but to kiss her. Her towel came off, and she didn’t leave his flat till the
next morning.

Zubin was obsessed with her hair. He had never felt anything like it, the
weight, the wildness of it, soft and rough and curly all at the same time. “My
Queen,” he murmured the next morning, tugging gently, as she was waking
up. Her hair was fanned across the pillow behind her head. Srila had sighed,
and the name had stuck. From Queen, to Queenie, to Q. It was his name for
her alone. Just like he had been Zoobisoux. And now he was back to being
Zubin.

*

Zubin agonized for weeks before sending her the email asking her to come
along with him to Ranthambore. They had talked about taking this trip for a
long time. They got married quietly, with very little fanfare, a year after they
first got together. They worked hard, Zubin at a smaller publishing house
now and Srila with a crafts NGO. They kept to themselves and made just
enough money to be happy. Neither had siblings. Srila’s parents had died in
an accident when she was a child and she had a strained relationship with her
aunt and uncle who lived in one of the sprawling suburbs outside Delhi.
Zubin’s parents lived in Surat. He had never been too close to them in any
case. Taking Srila there for a long weekend to meet them had been awkward.
His mother was dismissive and his father quiet and indifferent. Srila had tried
hard, but ultimately coming home was a relief—she felt she could finally
exhale. Seeing their friends come from large, rooted families had only
anchored Srila and Zubin tighter together.

“Seven is an enchanted number. That’s when we’ll take the trip, on our seven
year anniversary! A short one, but we’ll splurge, we’ll stay at that beautiful
luxury camp your friend told us about. We’ll see the fort, we’ll go on the
canter, drink good booze, go for walks… And we’ll definitely see a tiger.” Her
childish enthusiasm swept Zubin along as well. Ranthambore became their
go-to when either of them had a bad day, or needed something to look
forward to.

But Zubin didn’t understand her obsession with seven years. Did it have to
do with the ‘seven year itch’? Was it as simple as that? It seemed rather silly
to him. “It just means that, if we are still together after seven years—we’ll
make it,” Srila said. Zubin had laughed it off. In the meantime, they had gone
to other nearby places—Jaipur, Agra, Rishikesh. But she was saving
Ranthambore for later.

“I’ve heard it’s magical,” she said dreamily.

After four years of marriage, Zubin brought home a tiny ginger kitten. It had
been pouring with a sudden freak rain storm, and the poor creature was
mewling loudly, scrabbling helplessly at the pavement. In another minute she
would have been swept away. Srila was delighted. The kitten thrived, and
whatever little extra money they had kept aside went for Gigi’s food, toys and
vet bills. Zubin felt like he finally had the family he’d always wanted. Almost.
In their fifth year of marriage, Zubin noticed that something had changed. He
couldn’t quite put a finger on it. He knew that all relationships faced a lull –
intensity couldn’t be sustained for years on end. He knew there were times he
could be casually cruel, almost without noticing, until he replayed things he
had said, or perhaps done, over and over again. At the time, all he knew was
that his Queenie had stopped talking as much. She had never been much of a
talker. But there was a relaxed, quiet openness about her with him that he had
grown to cherish. He’d gotten busier at work, and didn’t really notice the
subtle change. Days melted into weeks, weeks into months, he didn’t know
what had changed, but something had. He was at a loss. When he tried
talking to her, she would say she was fine. She stopped bringing up
Ranthambore.

There were days when they reached a tentative equilibrium and he would
breathe a silent sigh of relief. And then things would get worse. He couldn’t
touch her. He tried a few times, but stopped when he felt she wasn’t really
there. He didn’t want to push. Except that one time when he’d had too much
to drink, and he did push, perhaps a little too angrily. Afterwards, he had
heard Srila crying softly in the bathroom and he had felt sick. The only thing
that seemed to work was when he stroked her hair, entangling his fingers in
the dense strands that seemed to bind him to her. It calmed her down and
helped her sleep. There were frustrated conversations. What can I do? Do you
want a child? Is it me? What’s wrong? Nothing.

Nothing was wrong and everything was wrong.

What can I do? What do you want?

*

Srila wanted to be alone. It was as simple and selfish as that. She could not
explain why. Why now, when she was surrounded by so much love. Zubin
was a good man who made her laugh and she loved him. She loved his
unruly hair, his John Lennon glasses and the softly swelling paunch he had
developed in the last two years. She loved that he was passionate about his
work and that spoke to Gigi in a ridiculously high-pitched baby voice. She
loved the clean smell of his skin on the nape of his neck. She loved his
kindness and his strength.

And yet, she could not shake off the feeling of walls closing in, of knowing
that she would be able to breathe better, sleep better if she was alone. She
wanted to feel like she was in her own skin, surrounded by silence and
nothing else. Perhaps she was sick. Perhaps she should do something about it.
But she couldn’t. She was stuck. She had decided what she wanted, and she
could not justify it, even to herself.

*

There was too much noise. Srila and Zubin had started fighting of late, small
things that escalated into big things, vicious incidents that left them both
shattered and empty. Zubin’s frustration was always bubbling at the surface,
and Srila was constantly irritated that he wouldn’t let her be. Plates had been
smashed, doors had been slammed and nothing made sense any more.

The only time she felt utterly at peace was when she went swimming. The
somewhat shabby Gymkhana pool was usually overcrowded with shrieking
children and splashing teens and perhaps a serious swimmer or two jostling
for a small section of the water to actually swim in. With her uncle’s
membership, Srila had taken Zubin years ago. It had been a most unsatisfying
experience—the water was murky and crowded beyond capacity. Afterwards
they had eaten oily pakoras in a dimly-lit hall filled with over stuffed arm
chairs upholstered in musty, fading red velvet. They had laughed about it,
vowing not to go back any time soon. Srila never thought this place would
become her haven.

She would float in the pool, her ears submerged, and all sound would be
pleasantly muffled. She could hear herself breathe—an exaggerated inhale
and exhale, inhale and exhale. She would pretend she was dead and hold her
breath for as long as possible, looking unblinkingly at the neon lights
flickering on the ceiling of the rundown club. Once or twice, she stayed that
way for so long that a lifeguard blew his whistle just to make sure she was
alright. Each time she emerged from the water, she felt as if she was waking
from a dream, heavy-limbed and ungainly, lumbering back to life.

When she left Zubin, everyone was shocked except Zubin. Srila had lost touch
with most of her friends, meeting them only on rare occasions. They had all
moved on with their lives, busy with work and children. No one had asked
Srila how she was doing in a very long time. They just presumed she and
Zubin would be together forever.

“Maybe if I was a different person…” she said, before leaving their flat for the
last time. Zubin couldn’t speak. He had said everything he needed to say. He
watched her with tired eyes as she shoved her clothes and other small
belongings into a suitcase. He didn’t try to stop her, not even when she asked
if she could take Gigi. For a moment, Zubin had felt a flash of rage. Don’t you
dare! he felt like shouting. Don’t you dare take Gigi, you’re the one who wants to be
‘alone’, remember? But he kept quiet, humiliated by the fact that he was jealous
of their cat, a creature he loved to death. He could understand why Queenie
wanted to take Gigi. So he let her.

“Just tell me where you’re going, I promise I won’t keep troubling you. I just
need to know you’ll be OK.”

“I’ll be staying at Ananya’s. She’s been gone a few weeks and won’t be back
for a year. Her place has everything. I’ll be fine.”

They were done with tears. They were done with the name-calling.

Srila made him promise to just let her be for some time, until she was ready.
No calls, no emails. And no meeting. Just for a while.

Eight long, surreal months had passed before Zubin realized that their 7-year
anniversary was coming up. He felt hollow. How could so much time have
passed without so much as a word from Srila? She had been his life, his
everything, and now he was living life on auto pilot, moving from one day to
the next in a daze. How long could this go on?

He woke up the next day with a steely resolve. He was going to do it. He was
going to go to Ranthambore. He had been walking around like a shell of a
man for too long, and he needed to see Queenie.

Her reply to his e-mail was cryptic.

from: Srila K
to: Zubin R
date: Wed, Sep 5, 2012 at 4.56 pm
subject: Re:
I’ll come. Send details.
Q.

Seeing her at the station was awkward. He didn’t know what to say, so he
picked up her bag and led the way to the taxi. When they sat in the car, he
rolled down the window and lit a cigarette. He looked at Queenie’s profile,
the familiar features that he knew like the back of his hand. All he could think
of was that he had seen her naked. And here she was, sitting next to him, the
most familiar stranger in the world. He wanted to ask a million questions.

Why did you cut your hair? When did you get glasses? Are you OK for money? How
is Gigi? What the hell have you been doing these last nine months? Do you think
about me at all? Is this what you want? But maybe it could wait.
Queenie turned slightly, as if she could read his mind. “It’s good to see you,”
she said softly.

When they reached the camp, Queenie’s eyes lit up. “It’s lovely!”
The tents, made of a thick cream-coloured canvas, were block printed with
delicate Jaipuri floral motifs. There were lanterns inside each one, giving off a
warm golden glow from the inside and an in-built restroom, off on the side. A
small porch with a wooden table and two chairs was outside each tent’s
entrance. With a pang, Zubin realized that this was exactly one of the images
of the camp they had seen on the website together.

“Freshen up and then a drink?” he asked.

They sat together sipping rum and water an hour before dinner. It was the
best Zubin had felt in a long time. Their silence was amiable, but Zubin knew
Queenie was holding back and he wasn’t going to push her. Not this time.
They made small talk, mostly about Gigi. “I can’t believe I took her away
from you,” she said. “Actually, that you let me take her.”

Zubin didn’t reply and they lapsed into silence again, watching the crackling
of the bonfire near the dining tent.

“Let’s go eat,” Zubin said finally. “We have an early start tomorrow.”

*

“It’s so beautiful here,” Srila said stepping out of the tent and stretching. “I
slept so well. You?” She looked at Zubin, who couldn’t hold back any longer.
“What happened to your hair, Q? I mean… how come?”

Srila was silent for a moment. “Probably for all the same clichéd reasons
women change the way they look. It reminded me too much of things I didn’t
need reminding of.” He noticed she had left out the phrase after a break up.
After more tea and some toast, Srila and Zubin climbed into the open jeep
with three other couples. The air was chilly and fresh and the ride out to the
park was invigorating. The excitement was palpable, with everyone quietly
murmuring about how they hoped they would see a tiger. They saw spotted
deer and all kinds of birds and even a snake which slithered at lightening
speed across their path. The ranger pointed out pug marks and favourite tiger
spots, but after three hours, they turned around with no tiger sighting.
“There’s always tomorrow morning, right? We’ll see the fort later today, if
you like,” Zubin said to Queenie when they got back to the camp.

“It’s alright, I’m not disappointed,” Queenie smiled. And she really wasn’t.
Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were bright.

In the afternoon, in perfect golden light, Zubin and Srila climbed up the steep
steps of the Ranthambore Fort. Towering over the entire National Park, the
panoramic view of the dense jungle was breathtaking. In the distance, the
Padam Talao shimmered invitingly. Groups of langurs congregated along the
walls of the fort, some leaping playfully, others picking at fleas or cradling
their young. Zubin imagined what this majestic fortification must have been
like back in the day, many centuries ago when it was first built. There must
have hundreds of tigers then. Now, they would be lucky to see even one.
That evening, the camp owner, a friend of a friend from Delhi, came over to
join them for a drink after dinner. They sat by the bonfire chatting for a while,
until he pulled out a small piece of hashish and started rolling a joint. He lit
up, and the smell was spicy and delicious. He passed the joint to Zubin, who
took a drag before passing it on to Queenie. And so it went, until Queenie
abruptly stood up, saying she needed to sleep. The joint had hit Zubin hard as
well, and he looked closely at Queenie to see if she was alright.

“I’m fine,” she said and made her way back to their tent, slightly unsteadily.
“You OK?” the camp owner asked.

“Fine, fine. It’s great stuff,” Zubin replied.

“I’m sorry… I heard about you and your, uh, wife. So if you don’t mind my
asking, what’s this all about?” he gestured in the general direction of the tent.
Zubin had no response. He just shook his head, closed his eyes and put his
head in his hands. He sat like that in silence, a kaleidoscope of patterns
playing again and again behind his shut eyelids until he heard the camp
owner stand up.

“Good night, my friend,” he said, patting Zubin on the shoulder.
How will I ever let go of this bitter taste?

Zubin stayed there for a long time.

In the tent, Srila lay trembling. She waited for a long time, listening for
Zubin’s footsteps. At some point, even she didn’t know when, she fell into a
vivid, dream-filled sleep.

*

The next morning dawned in much the same way. Except that time had taken
on a different meaning. Zubin felt like he and Queenie had been here forever,
in this peaceful haven of birds and trees, silence and fire flies at night. And
hearing Queenie breathe deeply as she slept. She would depart for Delhi
tonight, and Zubin tomorrow morning.

Queenie was quieter this morning. Even Zubin was silent, saying the words
in his head he wished he could say out loud. Happy anniversary, my love.
After their tea and iddlis, they once again clambered into the canter, this time
with a different group of people. The ranger was the same, and once again he
went over the national park etiquette with the visitors. As the jeep rumbled
out of the camp, Zubin closed his eyes, savouring the cold, fresh air on his
face. Soon a gentle sun came out, warming their hands and faces before the
day’s blaze would set in.

“We’ll take a different route this time,” the ranger said, looking at Zubin and
Srila, recognizing them from the day before. They drove around for an hour
before reaching a small open path. Here the ranger pointed out fresh pug
marks. A little further ahead, he seemed to become cautiously enthusiastic,
pointing out tiger droppings. “Maybe you’ll get lucky today,” he said quietly.
They drove in the direction of one of the small ponds surrounded by golden
reeds. The sun was glowing orange on its surface. Zubin heard a sharp intake
of breath from Queenie. A moment later, the ranger indicated to the driver to
switch off the engine. Everyone scrambled for their binoculars.

“It’s there, it’s there!” Zubin heard the woman sitting in front of him whisper
excitedly to the man next to her. They all stood on their seats, training their
binoculars in the same direction, towards the pond.

And there he was.

Nestled among the dry reeds, the big cat lay on his side, lazily basking in the
early morning light. Zubin could see people grabbing their cameras, and
zooming as far out as they could.

The tiger raised his head, and in that moment, Zubin and Queenie saw the
diamond glint of his whiskers catching the sun’s rays. Zubin felt the prickle of
hair rising on his arms. The tiger raised himself and stretched tautly in all his
feline perfection, shaking off the last of his sleep before padding off into the
forest behind him.

Zubin turned to Queenie, who had put her binoculars down. Her eyes were
shining with tears. She reached out to Zubin, and squeezed his hand tightly
before finally letting go.

*
Nandita Jaishankar studied Anthropology at McGill University (Montreal) and Asia Pacific Policy Studies at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver). She has been living in New Delhi since 2003, where she works as a freelance editor. She has also worked on the Lalit Kala Journal (Vol 52), a special issue dedicated to photography, titled Depth of Field: Photography as Art Practice in India (2012) and From Kabul to Kolkata: Of Belonging, Memories and Identity, a catalogue for an exhibition of the same name showcased in Kabul, New Delhi and Kolkata (2015). Her first book of poems, The Memory Bird, was self-published in 2009. Her poems have been featured in an anthology of poetry, Writing Love (Rupa & Co), published in 2010, as well as the Fall issue of Pyrta: A Journal of Poetry and Things, Asia Writes and Ceriph. In 2011, along with Rahaab Allana, she co-founded PIX: A Photography Quarterly a publication that looks at contemporary photography and writing around photography in South Asia. In 2015, she edited and conceptualized the catalogue for a photography exhibition titled Origins (curated by Rahaab Allana) for the British Council, India as part of the PHOTOUKINDIA initiative, looking at contemporary visual culture in India and the UK. The exhibition was held from Oct-Jan 2015 at The Gallery, British Council, New Delhi.