[Issue 8 / February 2014]

Nâtaline abhorred pungency of capsicum, roachy corners, soap operas, smell of new-mown hay and men, in equal measure, excepting Anton, her father. She hated almost all of men folk, that is. And occasioned by Anton’s demise, her revulsion for half of humanity turned absolute: she hated Anton, too, over a Goa property that he had bequeathed to one Zâbel who turned out to be his mistress of nineteen years and had borne two of his children.

“He kept it under wraps for so long…that’s typically a man thing, all…all of them are treacherous,” Nâtaline said and tossed the papers on the lawyer who read through them. But for the inescapable carnal needs, keeping men away was a safe stairway to a peaceful course of life.

Men were miserable scoundrels, mediocre mortals, and edgy spanners in the rounded, grounded, seamless world of feminine works. “You don’t keep annoyance around all the time,” Nâtaline avowed and prided that no man managed to stay with her overnight, ever.“Keep it short, sweet and playing straight is the way.”

Nâtaline, her mother nor her foremothers had ever entertained the surnames of men they had lived with. And Nâtaline unhesitatingly fended off such patronymic compulsions with irreverent élan.

As Anton had appeared on the horizon, swiftly discerning grander odds in his conspicuous highborn personage, Zâbel had promptly banished her first man forever over a frivolity. Anton’s aristocracy entitled him to be a weekend partner begetting two able daughters.

Zâbel, a harmony of features beyond the scope of genetic laws, a glamorous embodiment of her idol Magdu, mistress of the last Governor General Vassalo e Silva, with her brown-orange skin, caused by spray tanning, was pièce de résistance. Her arrival revved Anton’s dormant passions, enriched him beyond dreams, driving him to prostrate his obeisance every Sunday. But even as Anton continued marvelling at her matchless symmetry, in his fading prime, the day the younger daughter turned one, Zâbel’s attention on him waned and, within a summer, to his horror, it was no more undivided. She set her sights on his holdings past the western bank of Mandovi and the lush acres about Dona Paula as moral, if not legal, entitlement.

One night of long knives, ceaselessly nonplussing him with her beguile, she coerced him to hand down the best of his holdings in recompense for raising his daughters. Soon after laying hands on the certified papers, she dumped him altogether. For over seventeen years, his nobility had entitled him audiences with the high and mighty of Panaji and Vasco da Gama but it could not help him in visiting his daughters at home; now he only chanced upon them at schools, parks, malls, churches and on sandbanks on either side of the river. And Zâbel considered the expulsion of her twenty-something son, born to her first man, a natural consequence by saying, “Once the teenaged outlook is lost, boys manifest male chauvinistic behaviour causing friction.”And, as Anton aged, Zâbel detested stomaching even a few hours of his company; therefore, he decided to equip the upkeep through the ubiquitous money-jobbers calling himself a ‘provider in exile’. It was an acceptable separation for he loathed stepping into unwelcome places and, into the bargain, tainting his growing prominence in the power circles of Margoa.

Whether politicians, aristocrats, eccentrics, paupers or commoners, there was no differential treatment; in issues related to men, Zâbel was an egalitarian of the highest sort.

“Those few hours were always blissful,” Anton had said, “But it should not be construed as some sort of fling…she was a delight who dazzled with elegance and mesmerized with grace and, above all, had this uncanny knack of transporting you to cloud nine. But these are old, old memories…eighteen years old.”

*

Unambiguous, unwritten rules of engagement reigned supreme and as long as a man was compliant and unassertive, these familial women weighed up no one else. Once the bloke turned out hopeless, they scouted for a new sucker. Prompted by one such guy’s exit, casting about for a gullible chap, Nâtaline zeroed in on Salvador, a lanky twenty-year-old student at Dempo College at Altinho. Her plump and comely looks, honeyed voice, inimitable dreadlocks, exquisite but old-fashioned clothing and suavity, rendered him speechless. And, undeniably, her wide-brimmed embroidered hat played a key role in the siege and capitulation. Even if a hackneyed expression, that’s what ensued; Salvador loved Nâtaline at first sight. He had to come to terms with the sardonic truth of irreciprocity before long. Even in the most intimate moments, he never saw her in wistful moods; she was just hands-on.

Two brief stopovers in three months were enough to get the drift of the genetic allergy but, atypically, Salvador could stand the punishing spells of disgrace. He just tried to latch on to something else to blame. He was subjecting himself to wildfire that could race through him any time, his friends warned.

After Nâtaline homed in on someone, that someone still needed an appointment to meet her even if the meeting was at her behest. Evening or at prime, unpunctuality was fraught with danger for, every so often, deviations led to injuries needing weeks of tending. Recklessly calling off such appointments was her wont that men learned to live with.

But that Friday afternoon Salvador was on the dot. Nâtaline was engrossed in filing nails even as her headphones belted chart-busters. So piercing was the volume that, drawing nearer, Salvador perceived the track–Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. Then he heard her playing the little French girl Marina Dalmas’ rendition of the song.

*

“Marina performs it better than the original,” averred Nâtaline, collapsing into the sofa-sleeper; he could see that she was also crooning–a Hindi song. Even as he wondered about her multitasking skills, she jotted down a few grocery items and waved him to get them right then. A couple of visits, spread over months, had trained Salvador to be at home with her expertise—the simultaneous execution of diverse tasks. And you don’t have to be a Caltech allergist to make out that her revulsion to prolonged company of men folk was not a recently acquired hypersensitivity; it was chromosomal permeation, a genetic notation just to be complied, quite impulsively. To entertain ideas of a lasting relationship was nothing but aboring under a delusion, for Nâtaline’s mansion was ostentatious enough to render men nervous at the mere thought of entering it. In her eternal ego-trip, she shunned men with landed interests, of upper-class, men of letters, and of power. Salvador never rued his indiscretion but constantly kept himself primed for a lot that awaits disposable plates.

That mid-afternoon Nâtaline made no bones about niceties; the inklings that Salvador was still a needless bother were unmistakable. She nonchalantly beckoned him to fetch a bottle of Coke, corners of her mouth upturned while Salvador served.

“In the main, such men are in states that can only be called raw, rude, and crude, steeped in chauvinist attitudes,” she asserted.

That made it plain that Salvador possessed no property or status higher than hers. To be truthful, she endured him because he was not a low-profile guy but a no-profile guy. Men were cries of hounds in her grand musical voyage.

“Men, for all their physical power, can only be slaves,” she always prided in womankind, “Women are the real masters of this world…capable of multiplying the human race and, before long, technology is going to equip us with the wherewithal to do it without sperm. And men will go back to their ways of self-destruction. There is empirical evidence to support man’s maniacal obsession with women and sex…their needs are base. Well past the autumn of their lives, they scramble to seek nobler pursuits when no longer capable of appeasing their carnal instincts.”

Doffing headphones, fingering her dreadlocks, Nâtaline looked nervous, “The wretched women are arriving anytime now…I dread confronting the demonic threesome…they are skilled at turning foul in a trice, at the drop of a hat.”

Given her hard-hitting demeanour, in a rare exhibition of emotive power staging a grand coup, he could spot an air of disquiet on her face

.  “Who are they?” Salvador sounded meek.

“The diabetic Xanthippe who usurped my father’s villa and other properties for bearing two devils for him,” said Nâtaline. She was referring to Zâbel, the property in blue-blooded neighbourhood of Margao, a city larger than Panaji, and the farmland in Chinchollem.

“Why now?”

“Insatiability is a human trait…as the French say…when all other sins are old, greed still stays young. These pests scout for teeny-weeny leeway to appropriate. You play the devil’s advocate…you have to out-argue and tire them.”

The fact that Nâtaline herself dreaded them, given his non-existent pluck, the obscure debater in Salvador was petrified much before they arrived.

*

Zâbel wobbled with her teenaged super-obese daughters onto the porch. (Super obesity is a BMI of ≥ 45 and the reality of their perilous existence stupefied Salvador when Nâtaline spelled out what morbid obesity was: a BMI of ≥ 35.) Climbing two pair of stairs that creaked under their tonnage, huffing and puffing, groping their way along the wall, all three swayed and tumbled into the junked daybed in the doorway. The younger girl kicked open the fridge-freezer that was at arm’s length and, passed around bottles of Coke. The trio emptied quite a few bottles to moisten themselves. Their heavy stamping ripped the wetted carpets, justifying Salvador’s misgivings over new carpets every time he had visited.

Their gay abandon caused a quiet alarm. Two of them were too few; numerically they were just one more but their cumulative mass could mash the twosome. The over familiarity, with which they moved about the mansion, as if they had lived in it for donkey’s years, stunned Salvador. They knew every crook, cranny, and corner. They picked closets in the galley, left contents and chests bitten. Even while moving around, munching and having a nibble of the cheese, the three yelled swear-words at Nâtaline who gave a haughty return by hurling torrents of expletives. And both sides, quite inexplicably, waited to take vituperative turns; a sort of controlled muck raking. Akin to shear-thickening substances, they became stickier with each stream of cutting-edge obscenities. Their unruffled carriage amidst such profanity implied that this was their normal manner of discourse.

After all the aimlessness, for an end, their howling centred on disputed assets. And then, not just some prime manors in uptown Juba, but also, Nâtaline maintained, inheriting the chattels in an upscale district west of Margoa railway line was her birthright.

Bursting in spurts, scuttling towards her, the trio brazened it out to cow Nâtaline into ceding without much of a showdown. But Nâtaline nimbly drew them into a drift that converged not on sharing, but on her outright privileges over all that was left behind by Anton. They countered, calling her ‘illegitimate’, by brutally questioning Nâtaline’s paternity. After jostling, howling and spewing acerbic words, lack of formal will then led to a feud over the only resource humanity coveted besides real estate: dough, their father’s millions banked in accounts, stocks, and other stashes.

In the midst of the hullabaloo, Salvador made a timid effort to please Zâbel, whose excessive make-up proved unsuccessful in making her look younger than she was, by offering a glass of fruit juice.

“Young man…I believe you are Nâtaline’s new boyfriend. This is our family stuff…just keep off…Nâtaline is too clever and I am too worldly,” said Zâbel.

Putting the emphasis on the words new and our, Zâbel induced the intended consequence: Salvador instantly felt marginalised, unrelated. Nâtaline knit her brows; Salvador cringed.

“Girls…this is one hell of an unhappy place…let’s not waste our time here,” said Zâbel.

The younger girl said, “Why mom? If the evil is driven out…this can turn into a paradise…it’s not brickwork, its decency of people who live in it.”

“It is a paradise…it is big devils like you who make it a hell,” howled Nâtaline.

“Hey you…look, we don’t want a spat…we know all about you…how can you be different from your goddam…,” said Zâbel.

“My father adored my mother, not you…that says it all. It was his cardinal sin…begetting two fat devils in the bargain.”

Both girls reached Nâtaline in one spring, punched, and kicked her. Nâtaline’s alacrity enabled her to give it back in kind, and as many. All three grappled for a while and, all at once, untangling themselves, retreated a bit. Reckoning that they were chickening out, as Nâtaline had eased, all three began throwing effects at her. Wielding a matching technique, Nâtaline heaved a wooden chair, injuring Zâbel; not only Zâbel’s head, even Salvador’s theory that speed and obesity were incongruent, was shattered forever.

Zâbel bled and began crying in raucous decibels. The terrified girls rammed Nâtaline onto the floor and began pounding with their legs ton-force. Going by Nâtaline’s cries, it was obvious that the effects of standard gravity remained unaltered even on the third floor of a building perched on a hill. It occurred to Salvador that they were indeed more masculine than many men and, in the melee, he managed to escape in one bolt.

*

Six months later, Salvador bumped into the younger girl sipping an energy drink outside a pet-salon in Caculo Mall while her Pomeranian, Gili, was being groomed. They chatted until the pooch emerged in shipshape and Bristol fashion. Salvador, successful in keeping the topic of their property issues at bay, walked her to the parking lot. He took up her offer to drop him at his place but, on the way, she was effective in coaxing him to her own. He could see it in her eyes, in her speech and in her abnormal graciousness; undoubtedly, she had not toyed with a man in a long while. A few months of celibacy shrinks their allergy to tolerable limits.

Steering through winding alleyways, before he could figure out the direction, she pulled up at the most dreaded place on earth—Nâtaline’s mansion. More frightful was the fact that he had declined to meet Nâtaline despite her messages since he had gotten away.

Salvador imagined being pummelled in their traditional manner. Right from the porch he could hear boisterous laughter and shrieks of repartee. As younger girl climbed the stairs with him, the multiple voices inside wrought wonder, since he had expected Nâtaline to be habitually alone. Inside, he clatter was so intense that Salvador was terrified to enter. Letting go of Gili, the girl snapped him through the door and, to his amazement, he saw three women rolling over each other. Even as these three bodies spun as one bulk, he spotted Nâtaline, Zâbel and her older daughter, frolicking. Ignoring him, the younger girl leapt into the roiling body of bodies, making it larger and merrier. The great mass gyrated around the hall, a humpback whale whirling the floor: a whale of a time.

Their revelry spanned for quite a while and they were unconcerned with Salvador’s presence. In the bargain, the jollity, he gathered that Zâbel and Nâtaline’s deceased mother were step-sisters and, at one point, in concubinage with Anton.

Salvador grasped the sweep of their pedigreed aversion. Agony or ecstasy, their realm was perfect without men for, in a flawless manifestation of geneticism, the allergy ran in the family with such vengeance that their unstoppable gaiety, he thought, was the perfect moment for him to slip out, without a scratch, again.

He did; for now.

*

Ram Govardhan’s first novel, Rough with the Smooth, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize and The Economist-Crossword 2011 Award. His short stories have appeared in several Asian and African literary journals. He works and lives in Chennai. ram.govardhan@ymail.com

 

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Ram Govardhan’s first novel, Rough with the Smooth, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize and The Economist-Crossword 2011 Award. His short stories have appeared in several Asian and African literary journals. He works and lives in Chennai.ram.govardhan@ymail.com

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