By Srirupa Dhar
They also serve who only stand and wait – John Milton, On His Blindness.
The soft lights from the wall sconces glistened. Raima looked at them wistfully. The house was full with at least forty guests. The house of Shekhar Dasgupta. Forty-six year old Shekhar looked dapper in his slim fit casual red and blue check shirt and pale blue jeans. His tan skin and butch haircut were at liquid ease with the sleeves of his shirt rolled up. Shekhar admired his newest household fixture, the satin-silver-leaf ceiling lights. The lights boasted a complacence in their intricate and contemporary designs. This was a night that Shekhar knew would be one of his most gratifying. He had a fetish for orchestrating soirees. Parties that had global touches and be etched in people’s memories forever. A gourmet himself, Shekhar ordered his cosmopolitan chef: “Hari, you’ve got to give one of your bests tonight. Ask the kitchen staff to buy the raw materials from Le Marche.1 I don’t want anything to go wrong with the food or drinks.” Shekhar’s excitement had an added new promise, too. Because, after all these years of disinterest in such parties, Raima told Shekhar that she had a surprise waiting for him that evening.
Dr. Dasgupta’s colleagues, all established doctors like the neurosurgeon himself, flocked in with their spouses. Glasses clinked with the malty smell of Scotch whiskeys and oaky bouquet of Chardonnays. The bitter tartness of alcohol intimately medleyed with the floral fragrances of Gucci and Chanel. The middle-aged self-complacent men savored the drinks as they cracked bawdy jokes. On-the-rocks Margarita glasses were laced with pearly salt at the tips. Men in white uniforms waited on the guests. The domestic help were serving pineapple and mango salsa,2 quesadillas,3 carnitas,4 and guacamole5. The heat of the green peppers, zing of the braised pork, thickness of the molten cheese, and creaminess of the buttery avocadoes kicked in. This Cinco de Mayo6 dinner in early May was meant to cast a Mexican charm in this sprawling living room at Golf Links. Shekhar wanted to give a Spanish spin to the party, too. The duende of the flamenco guitar on Shekhar’s music system evoked fire in his mezzanine floor drawing room.
Supriya sat with a fluorescent green glass of Margarita, her cautiously manicured fingers making sure, not to touch any droplets sweating down the sides of the glass. She wore a white net saree with a skin-colored sheer full-sleeved blouse embossed with blue net designs. Her svelte body was oozing out a deliberate transparency. Shekhar’s snooty, binocular eyes felt a tingle. He was taking in Supriya’s delicate curves. Mihir looked as if he would devour Supriya. His salt and pepper stubble had a predatory air. He was thinking how lucky Supriya’s husband was. But very soon I will turn Shubho into a pitiful cuckold. I will take over Supriya’s bony cleavage. Must be silky inside!, thought Mihir. Suparna came up to her husband and whispered into his ears: “Stop staring like that, Mihir. You don’t have to tell the world that you are an asshole.” Mihir was in full control of himself. In slow, deliberate whispers, he told his wife: “Get off my domain, you whore. No one will even glance at those sagging breasts of yours! No point in flaunting them around with this body-hugging dress.” Suparna’s off-shouldered outfit was violent in its self-proclamation. It was a City Chic plus size black metallic dress. Mihir did not care for its myth, though.
Raima wasn’t glowing. Not in a trendy way. Her almond-shaped eyes were beautiful by themselves. They did not rely on liners. Those eye shadows and liners only make women look muddy. Since her early youth, forty-two year old Raima believed that. She never wanted to cope with the sassiness of Golf Links. Her eyebrows had turned cynical in the twenty-two years of her married life in this posh Delhi neighborhood. This night she was clad in a beige cotton saree with conventional red stripes. The terracotta jewelry enhanced her earthiness. And her honest skin tones blended with her apple cheeks and light skin.
Raima was wearing her bifocals. Last week she embarked on this new phase of her life. She braved nature’s way with an accepting grace. “Now that I have my bifocals, I feel that the world has many dimensions,” she told Shekhar and Mridul while returning from a wedding a week ago. Sitting at the steering wheel, Shekhar smiled: “Are you saying that your bifocals will become X-ray machines? Need we do everything with extra caution?” “May be!” said Raima continuing her jocular tone.
“Maa, you walk like a dumb Alzheimer’s patient with your new pair of glasses.” Mridul wasn’t joking. Ever since his mother had been trying to adapt to her new vision, Mridul was blatant in his impatience. Maa is such a moron. It’s only a f….ing pair of glasses. How can she be so unsmart? He might say those words aloud some day. Who knows?
Raima’s broad smile waned. She thought of Parul Pishi in Behala, Kolkata, who was trapped in her own sense of time. Alzheimer’s was killing Parul Pishi even as it was relieving her of the awareness of her pain. She did not know who she was. She did not know that she lived in her home in Kolkata. On her last visit to her hometown, Raima saw that Parul Pishi’s sense of ‘self’ was ebbing away. The process might seem slow, but it was lethal. It was bizarre for Raima to think of herself becoming the diminutive embers of a dying fire like her aunt. Mridul’s words during the drive back home cut sharp into Raima’s consciousness. The matter-of-factness in his tone was all the more hurting. Raima remained quiet. Her wounded mind was caught in memories. Such memories often haunt her nowadays. They were close to her heart. They were cherishing thoughts. But these thoughts had only a past. They were dead, yet, living. Raima was thinking of the little dramas mother and son used to play few years ago. Early on, Raima figured that Mridul was well ahead of his age. Raima, herself an avid reader, exposed Mridul to the original Sherlock Holmes stories when he was only eight. Mridul fathomed them easily and enjoyed playing Holmes making his mother act as Mrs. Hudson. The two of them had a cozy togetherness nine years back.
Mridul was now seventeen. Raima believed that her son had taken after her almond eyes and cordate chin. But those weren’t enough to make him hers. Mridul’s cheeks look furrowed, thought Raima as she tried to steal her eyes away from him during the drive home from a wedding last week. “Don’t take his words to heart. His teenage angst shows in everything,” Shekhar advised Raima in his pragmatic voice. Raima could see herself spiraling into a world where the vectors of life were overturned. A world seduced by things, impalpable, virtual. The mother could see her innocent games with little Mridul getting sucked into the new realities of simulations and social networks. Raima was silent, speaking only in her mind: Yes, modernity is a Pyrrhic victory.
Raima made some efforts at being a good hostess, if not a perfect one. She called out to one of the serving crew at Shekhar’s Golf Links home: “Gopal, make sure that the dessert is served after dinner is over. Doctor Saheeb’s friends love Mexican flan,7” said Raima. She greeted the Kapoors as the couple entered the room with big expectations from Shekhar’s flawless social evenings. “Sorry, Raima, we are late!” said Amrish as he ogled the “real stuff” in the Cinco de Mayo party. Rekha Kapoor made no pretense of her revulsion against Raima. Rekha had always found it intolerable that Raima had an aversion to maquillage. “Just stop being a retro Aparna Sen, Raima. For once, grow up and be a woman! And can’t you get a pair of contact lenses? Those bifocals! Gosh! You look like a haggard from the 18th century. But I guess, that’s who you are!” Raima slightly adjusted her new pair of glasses. Her new vision saw through Rekha’s blue mascara. It redefined Rekha’s convex eye bags. Raima didn’t bother to answer. She only said to herself: What good is it to try to camouflage those dark bulging circles? Is it her age or her stress that she is so desperately trying to beat? Pathetic!
Rekha couldn’t hold her disgust at Raima’s silent stares. “Sick!” she said and found her place among the Chanels and Margaritas. With fluid ease.
Raima’s bifocals caught sight of the decorative sapphire-blue and russet-red crystal fish closely entwined with each other. The showpiece was kept on one of the mahogany side tables. That intimate artifact reminded her of her first night with Shekhar. “This is my wedding night’s gift to you, Raima,” he said as he gave her a squeeze and the crystal fish. Raima had felt wanted, if not loved. She was about to move into the world of secret smells and sounds. Her body was taut with burning excitement and vague apprehension. She was naively shy, fumblingly hesitant. “Have you never slept with a man before?” asked Shekhar scowling at his bride’s innocence.
Raima was not prepared for such a question from the man she thought she would be sharing her bed for the first time and the rest of her life. His bluntness shocked her. “Me? Oh! No! Never!”
“What?” Shekhar’s voice was short of a bark. That crystal fish soon found itself in the living room.
Raima adjusted her bifocals. The line between Raima’s lenses was opening up the world to her even as she wrestled to balance her conflicting visions. The two fish, she noticed, were not so close, after all. She could see the red fish on top of the blue one. The swirly artistry was too subtle to make this internal story obvious.
Shekhar was frantic. After the flamenco guitar CD ran its course, he had planned on playing Carlos Santana’s music, the album containing the songs, “Oye Como Va” and “Black Magic Woman”. But he couldn’t find it anywhere. “Raima!” he shouted. “I have told you a thousand times not to fiddle with my things. Who asked you to undo my arrangement of things in the house, huh? Only Vinod will reshuffle my stuff when he comes for the house cleaning every day. Do you understand? Now tell me where have you kept this CD?” Raima didn’t say anything. She looked at the room through the contours of her glasses.
Shekhar’s sudden outburst and Raima’s silence threw ripples of excitement. Ria and Prakash were chuckling in a togetherness they had never shared in their twelve years of marriage. Priya and Sonam exchanged glances at each other. And Shekhar continued to give Raima an unforgiving look. Raima slowly went towards the lighted curio cabinet in the eastern end of the room. She could see the CD on the floor next to the curio cabinet. As she picked it up, Asha, sitting in the couch closest to the curio, apologetically said: “Oh! Sorry, I wanted to take a look at the album. I brought it from the rack near the music system. I think I kept it on the couch when I got up once to take my drink. The CD may have fallen from the sofa. Someone must have mistakenly dropped it there.” Raima took the CD and brought it back to Shekhar. He didn’t know how to react. He decided to forgo and just leave the matter there. No use digging it up again, he thought.
The evening was rolling, loud and loose. Raima was moving towards the kitchen when Amisha asked her: “Where did you buy this split canvas abstract painting?”
“Last year when Shekhar went for a conference to Washington D.C., he got this.”
“Looks pricey! I can imagine it must have cost a fortune to just bring it to this part of the world.” “Yes, I believe it cost quite a bit. I don’t know for sure, though. I never asked,” replied Raima. Amisha was about to say that she didn’t quite believe in that bull….. But, on the mention of America, she was instantly reminded of a story she felt she must tell the folks at this party. “Can you imagine,” Amisha addressed Gouri and Lata. “Can you believe that my cousin, Rakhee, who got married to this IT guy in North Carolina, went through such a weird experience? She wanted to earn some money and applied to this agency that hires interpreters. She went there as a Hindi interpreter. But before she joined she had to clear drug tests etc. The drug test was…,”Amisha lowered her voice. “Can you believe that she had to pee in front of one of the female employees at the Drug Test place? And that too, she was having her period at that time,” sadistically smirked Amisha. “And all the others in that place were criminals who went for drug tests there. Rakhee was sobbing on the phone as she was narrating me her experience last week. I thought it served her right. She was too excited to go to America, as if, we, folks in India, live in hell.” Gouri and Lata found this anecdote hilarious and giggled. Raima was standing close by. Her innards were revolting. She heard those women shifting gears with mercurial speed. “Talking of America, did you watch the Oscars last February? What a fiasco with Faye Dunaway reading the wrong name of the winning movie!” said Lata. “Really?” gasped wide-eyed Amisha.
“It wasn’t simply reading of the wrong name. The announcers…I forget his name… some old man and this Faye Dunaway were given the wrong card. They screwed up big time!” said Gouri. As she passed them, Raima felt like screaming out to them and saying: “He is not ‘some old guy’. He is a fourteen-time Oscar nominated actor and winner of best director, Henry Warren Beatty.”
Mihir offered his hand for close dances with the women in the room. Supriya was first. Her eyes got smokier as Mihir touched her hips and rubbed the small of her back. Amisha, Gouri, and Priya moved nimbly to Mihir’s tight grasp of their dreamy bodies. The ladies were desperate for their turns to come. As if, a man’s touch was virgin to their sensual viscera. Suparna was so disgusted with Mihir that she tried her best to stay away from him. But she couldn’t resist monitoring his lewd moves. She was sitting on the ottoman when she saw Raima. “So, Raima, tell me about Mridul.” Raima thought of her boy. She had named him Mridul. For, she believed that she would rear her only son as a sensitive human being. He would live up to the meaning of his name. The name that meant ‘tender’. Though Shekhar overrode her in many decisions, he didn’t deny her the right to name their son. “Mridul turned seventeen last month. He has gone out with his friends for dinner and a sleepover this evening,” Raima replied with a listless expression.
“Wow! Seventeen!” exclaimed Suparna. He will soon pursue a professional degree. So, what is he thinking of doing? Will he be a doctor just like his dad?”
Raima stared at the peach walls of the room frothing with animal energy. The folksy rattle of the maracas and the guttural beats of Santana’s guitar filled the room with gusto. Raima knew that her husband was gratified. The hypnotic charms of the Latino ambience were what he wanted for tonight’s party. Is it time now for the grand surprise I promised him? mused Raima. The mention of Mridul slightly diverted her thoughts, though.
Raima thought of the racquet Mridul made on his birthday last month. “I don’t want to have all that crap, Maa. It is my birthday and I just want pizzas. I hate having that ‘payesh’8 and ‘palong shaker ghanto’9 you make every year on my birthday.” Raima’s mind also fled to her birthday celebrations in her parents’ comfortable and loving home in Kolkata. Her mother would prepare ‘payesh’, ‘palong shaker ghanto’, and varieties of ‘pithe’10 on her birthday. Raima’s birthday fell when ‘Poush Shankranti’11 was right around the corner. The marble floors and the aquamarine curtains in her childhood home at Lake Gardens would waft with the rich smell of thickened milk and cardamoms, sweet aroma of molasses, and strong lentil-y fragrance of “vadi.”12 They would smell of home.
Suparna was waiting for Raima to answer. “Are you tired, Raima? By the way, isn’t your anniversary sometime in May?”
Suparna had a good memory.
Raima’s voice was rickety in its tentativeness: “Ah, yes.”
“So, when is it? Will you guys be throwing another party then..?” Suparna halted in the middle of her question. “Wait a second! Isn’t it on the fifth of May? T…..oday!”
Raima’s lips didn’t feel like stretching for a smile. Suparna lost no time in making an announcement: “Can I have everyone’s attention, please! Do you know why we are here today? It is Shekhar’s and Raima’s twenty-second wedding anniversary!”
Her plummy voice invited a cheer from the roomful of guests, even the half-drunk ones.
Raima saw Shekhar standing in a corner of the room with a wine glass in his hand. His chiseled face was caught off-guard. But he knew never to give himself away. “Yes,” he said. “This party was in honor of my vintage wife.” The room resonated with cheers. But the voices around were drowning as the dividing line in Raima’s bifocals saw her husband, fractured. He was the host, the architect of this party. He was the successful medical professional. He was the actor, too. Raima’s glasses couldn’t find her husband, though.
Raima felt this was the right moment. She walked towards Shekhar asking him to turn off the music and draw attention of the guests for the mighty surprise she has been holding for so long. Shekhar was relieved that his wife forgave him his temporary ill temper during the party. His mind was reeling with questions. So, Raima did not forget her surprise gift? She does not mind me forgetting our anniversary, I guess!
“May I have your attention, friends? Raima has a surprise in store for us. This is the moment I have been waiting for, too. After all, it is my wife’s gift on our special day”.
The room whisked into an uncanny silence. All eyes rested on Raima. In slow, steady steps, she moved towards the north side of the room. The wall on that end of the room was covered in thick satin drapes. The red curtain with white floral designs harmonized with the elegance of the entire room. Raima drew the thick fabric in her slow, gradual pace. And the roomful of people saw it all!
There was a graffiti on that peach wall. The softness of the peach color was nowhere to be found. The darkening bright image of a green pit viper ate into the tender peach. There was a grotesque figure of a woman who was not quite a woman. The figure had ugly, naked breasts. The image was slithery and scaly like a reptile. Its triangular head of a venomous snake, predatory with its deep pit between the eye and nostrils, was looking at a mirror. The reflection on the mirror showed the letters: AKHER.
It did not take much time for the people in the room to make out that these letters were a lateral inversion of REKHA.
Shekhar was stupefied as were the guests.
Rekha couldn’t hold back her venom: “You dumb woman! What right have you to do that? How dare you?”
Raima stood there as silent as always with a sly smile escaping her lips.
Shekhar couldn’t hold back his temper. His ego felt threatened. “Raima! What is the meaning of this? Apologize to Rekha.”
Raima raised her eyebrows, looked at the full monty through her bifocals and left the party room. As she was leaving to go into her study, she was aware of Shekhar’s hateful stare at her. After all, her long years of artistry had not gone in vain. The long months of her addiction to this graffiti paid off. In her mind she thanked Shekhar and Mridul for having the decency to respect the privacy she had asked for. She worked secretly with the impression of offering something spectacular to the house, to the guests on Cinco de Mayo and to Shekhar. They had never intruded into her secrecy. Raima was disturbed by a slight sense of guilt there.
The evening drew to a close. The moon looked tired. Dark clouds were gathering and the jasmine blue yielded to a sable blue sky. It was two in the morning. Shekhar was quiet. Absolute quiet had never been part of him before. The guests left conveniently after Rekha hurried out of the party. Shekhar dismissed the waiters. He wouldn’t let his servants see through his humiliation. Glasses and used plates were strewn all around. Shekhar shut the door of their bedroom.
Raima laid in the futon of her study. She couldn’t shut her eyes. The crystal fish on the mahogany table in the living room seemed to stare at her. The night darkened. Thunder broke into the soft shades of the light. The lights no longer tried to shine, not even desperately.
Raima fell into a sleep around four in the morning.
Parul Pishi was saying: “Happy birthday, Rai!” “How is the payesh and pithe?”
‘Pishi,13you remember my birthday?”
“Of course! Poush Shankranti is here. You are my brother’s only baby. The first daughter of our next generation. We, Senguptas, are so proud of you! You came to this world with the sweetness of jaggery. You are our sugar. Our caramel. No wonder, your mother named you ‘Mishti” 14. “Mishti” was her last word when she left us two years ago.”
“How come you haven’t forgotten anything, Pishi?”
The dimple on Parul Pishi’s left cheek looked young and full of life. She was glowing in her beige saree that had conventional red stripes. She sat beside Raima. “Rai, did you notice that we are both wearing identical sarees? That makes us one. Isn’t it? But, why don’t I smell pithe and payesh? The smell here is sour. Why? And, look at this crystal fish!”
Parul Pishi’s close-knit thick eyebrows drew closer. She was holding her niece’s wedding night’s gift and moving the two fish. “This is funny, Rai! See I can move the blue fish once up and then down again. I can do the same with the red one too. Neither of them is in any one particular position.”
“I never noticed that before,” Raima said.
“Wear your bifocals, Rai.”
Raima’s body had grown slack in her dream. She was slowly waking up and smelling the acid, the sour. She was waking up to the wine and Margarita glasses scattered on the wooden floor of the living room.
Raima was opening her eyes. She was coming out of some unknown abyss. Parul Pishi was not there. The morning sun was sedately domestic. It was not playing fun games with the glass windows of the living room at Golf Links. The hangovers of last night’s darkness were yet to go.
1 Le Marche: An international grocery in New Delhi
2 Salsa: Latin American spicy tomato dip
3 Quesadilla: A heated flour bread called tortilla that is filled with cheese
4 Carnita: A tender pork dish that is cooked in oil or lard
5 Guacamole: A dip made of avocadoes
6 Cinco de Mayo: A Mexican celebration on May 5th. It is a celebration of victory over the French on May 5th, 1862.
7 Mexican flan: Caramel pudding
8 Payesh: Bengali dessert containing thickened milk
9 Palong shaker ghanto: Part of the traditional Bengali cuisine. A medley using spinach and many vegetables
10 Pithe: A dessert with coconut and molasses filling. It is made during ‘Poush Shankranti’
11 Poush Shankranti: A celebration (around January) when the month of ‘Poush’ in the Bengali calendar ends
12 Vadi: Fried bits made of lentils. ‘Vadi’ is often used in Bengali vegetarian medleys
13 Pishi: Paternal aunt
14 Mishti: Sweet
Srirupa Dhar is Indian by birth and has been living in the United States since 1998. She completed her M.A. and M.Phil. in English Literature at the University of Kolkata, India. She obtained another Master’s degree in English with Technical Writing Certification from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, U.S.A. Srirupa taught as a Lecturer in the Department of English at Bethune College, Kolkata. She has also been a Middle School English teacher in Columbus, Ohio. She is a voracious reader and takes an avid delight in all genres of art. Occasionally, she acts in plays in Columbus, where she is part of an amateur dramatic society.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘India at 70: The Many Partitions’, edited by Bhaswati Ghosh, author & translator, Canada.