Read The Lilac House Online

Authors: Anita Nair

Tags: #Bangalore (India), #Widows, #Contemporary Women, #Domestic fiction, #General, #College teachers, #Fiction, #Cultural Heritage

The Lilac House (6 page)

BOOK: The Lilac House
eera’s petrified future. It begins thus:
The raucousness of a rowdy flock of mynahs in the avocado tree by the bedroom window.
Just for a moment she knows respite as she stirs from sleep. A sleep she had lured in the early hours with a Restyl tablet. She had lain on her side reading the chemical composition of the little angel who would lull her nerve ends to repose.
She keeps her eyes shut and holds her breath. What if Giri crawled into bed while she was asleep? A movement at her side. A breath. A hand that snakes its way to drape around her hip. A clearing of throat. The presence of Giri.
She lies there with her eyes pressed tightly shut.
Meera lets her fingers crawl and encounters the unslept side of the bed. She knows then it is the morning after Giri’s disappearance. In the span of sixty seconds, her mind leaps,
vaults, hops, skips, tumbles, cartwheels, gyrates and contorts into a million possibilities of anguish in waiting.
Explanations. Nayantara. The police station. Mummy, Lily and Nikhil. The neighbours. Colleagues. Friends. The driver, the maid, the people in the park. Telephone calls. Credit cards. The bank manager. Hospitals. Telephone books. The morgue where bodies wait to be identified… Stop it, stop it, Meera tells herself. She catches sight of herself in the mirror and thinks, do I know that woman? Sitting with her arms wrapped around her knees, rocking ever so gently, as if to soothe herself. Do I know that woman with bereavement written in her eyes, face and limbs? A woman who doesn’t know what to do next except alternate between grief and abasement.
There was a time when Zeus decided to punish Hera for her wilfulness. He hung her from the sky, shackled by golden bracelets at the wrist and an anvil at the ankle.
In the oceans below, Hera saw herself reflected. She quailed at the image of what she had been turned into. Worse was the knowledge that she would be seen thus: a woman petrified.
How could something like this have happened to her? Hera didn’t know what hurt more, the pain or the humiliation. A cry escaped her.
And so Meera Hera cries as she opens her eyes to a dank September morning.
‘Where’s Giri?’ Saro asks at breakfast, forking a papaya cube.
‘I don’t know,’ Meera says. Her mother needs a whole papaya every morning, one half of which she cuts into cubes and eats. The rest she smears on her face. Meera gapes at her now, as if seeing her for the first time. This orange-faced silly woman, my peacock of a mother, is this the woman I am to turn to for comfort and succour?
‘Isn’t he having any breakfast?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What do you mean, I don’t know? Is it too much to expect a civil answer?’
‘Now now, Saro,’ Lily interrupts. ‘No need for you to get so upset! Meera means she doesn’t know if Giri is in the house or in the garden.’ Lily smears butter on her toast. ‘He’ll be here soon!’
The scraping of the knife on the crisp surface of the bread. Scrape. Scrape. Scrape. Meera feels it grate inside her skull.
‘No, I don’t know. That’s what I mean. I don’t know where he is. I don’t know where he spent the night or who he is with. I don’t know if he will be here for breakfast or back in this house ever again. I don’t know if he is alive or dead or lying in some hospital in a coma… I don’t know a fucking thing!’ Meera snaps. Her eyes fill and she brushes the tears away. ‘Satisfied? Does that satisfy your curiosity, Ma?’
Saro’s eyes are round with shock. Lily’s crafty old eyes narrow. Meera drops her head and rests her forehead on the table’s edge. She wants to crawl into a deep dark hole and stay there. Away from their prying eyes, their questions, and the sight of Nikhil, a mute Nikhil pretending that he has heard nothing, trying to hide behind a tightly clenched face his perturbation at a suddenly foulmouthed, raging mother and a mysteriously missing father. His fingers alone give him away as they shred a piece of toast into crumbs.
‘But he must have said something,’ Saro begins.
‘Did you try calling him?’ Lily asks.
Meera rubs her forehead on the edge of the table. Each time the children or Giri fumed at the old ladies for making a fine art of stating the obvious, Meera had frowned at them.
‘Then tell them to lay off. I don’t need them telling me what I can see for myself,’ Nayantara would snap back.
Now Meera wishes she could do as Nayantara does. Toss her
head and flounce off in a rage. ‘What do you think?’ she asks between gritted teeth.
Precisely eighteen hours after Giri disappeared, Meera’s mobile lights up with a message from him: Check your email.
She stares at the screen in shock. Check your email.
She calls him. But there is no response. Either Giri is ignoring her or he is not being allowed to access the phone. Meera’s hand goes to her mouth. Has he been kidnapped?
The papers are full of such stories. Of men robbed at knife point on their way home. Of missing ‘techies’ and murdered businessmen. Was Giri… Meera races to the computer.
Her heart pauses.
In its very baldness is a statement of intent. Meera speed reads the letter, unable to believe what she is reading. Then she reads it again, slowly, so that each syllable brands itself on her mind.
Meera, I know you must be worried by my disappearance. Furious even. I am sorry if I have caused you some anxiety over this. Please believe me, I didn’t plan to do it this way. I wanted us to sit down and discuss it. If I told you how I was feeling, I knew you would understand. That our life together weighed on me.
But I didn’t think it would come to this. That I would find the courage to just up and leave. I woke up this morning in Chennai asking myself, what am I doing away from you and the children? Then I felt a sense of relief. I don’t know how to explain it.
I tried, I want you to know that I tried, but I can’t go on like this any more. We have just one life to lead and I can’t waste it.
I need to be more clear in my head about what I want to do. I will be in touch. Bear with me, Meera. Bear with me until then.
Bear with me until then. Meera reads the line over and over again. Until when, Giri, until when?
Meera looks at her hands. Shouldn’t they be shaking? Shouldn’t her mouth wobble and her eyes well up? But for a moment she feels nothing. Then a pulse in her forehead begins throbbing and in the pit of her abdomen, she knows a heaviness. A heaviness that envelops her in a chill. What is she to understand of this?
Has he left her? Or is he coming back? Is this an interim phase, a temporary madness, or is he never coming back? What does he mean by ‘our life together weighed on me’?
Outside the windows, the sky heaves. The blue skies of September have turned. Dense grey clouds pile up, swamping the light and air. The room closes in on her, a giant beast squeezing the confines of space with its gargantuan paws. Thunder growls. Meera sits staring at the computer screen unseeingly. She knows she ought to get up and switch off the computer, pull out the plugs of all the electrical appliances. The electrician had warned her about the faulty wiring. ‘Madam, we need to redo the wiring entirely. It can’t take the load. Until then I suggest that you pull out the plugs during the rains. Or there could be a short somewhere.’
It begins as a hiss. Then sheets of rain. Meera looks out of the window. Nikhil will be soaking wet by the time he reaches home. Again she feels unable to rouse herself.
Meera gropes within herself, searching for some clue that will tell her how to react. Grief. Betrayal. Anger. Fear. Loss. Resentment. Hatred. What is she to feel?
She sits there, not knowing what to do. It would come to her soon, the knowledge of how to decipher the significance of this moment. It would reveal itself and take precedence over the hammering in her forehead that demanded with every throb: But what are you going to do? What are you going to do now?
hat are you going to do? Meera asks herself, putting the phone back on the hook gently.
He was here for the day, Giri said. And he wanted to meet. ‘Not there,’ he said. She noticed that he balked at using the word home. Our home. The home he had fled. ‘Not with those old bats listening to every word and interfering.’
Meera flinched. Her mother and grandmother were not easy to live with. But she couldn’t bear for Giri to reprimand or ridicule them. The first time he jeered at them, Meera had recoiled as if kicked in the chest by his harshness, his irritability with them. She turned on him furiously. If he found fault with them, it was like finding fault with her.
‘How can you, Giri? How can you be so nasty? It isn’t done,’ she said when he emerged out of the spell they had initially woven around him. Disenchantment made him acerbic. Odious even.
Giri looked at her as if he couldn’t trust his ears. Meera, his goose girl, telling him that he was wrong. Meera met his stare even though she knew he was hurt. Perhaps she should have flung her arms around him, declaring total allegiance, and whispered in his ear, ‘I know, they are rather hard to live with. They try my patience too!’
But how could she make such an admission of disloyalty? If she was so easily a traitor to her mother and grandmother, one day she would betray him too. Didn’t he see that? But Giri didn’t. Instead, he chose to remain aloof. When Meera went to him, wanting to share a moment of distress triggered by them – a careless word spoken, a thoughtless deed, wounds inflicted carelessly and with little malice, nevertheless painful – when Meera turned to Giri for handholding and comfort, he removed himself from her confusion and hurt. ‘I don’t want to get involved. They are your family. You won’t like it if I say something. Just leave me out of this squabbling. Though civil war would be more appropriate a phrase.’
Only, now, Giri doesn’t feel the need to be civil any more. He can say what he pleases. And if she doesn’t like it, she can stuff it, his tone implies.
And yet, Meera can’t help a fugitive thought from taking residence in her mind. He is here, isn’t he?
Meera waited until the next morning before she mentioned the email. ‘Darling,’ she told Nikhil. ‘Daddy is in Chennai.’
Nikhil looked away. ‘When is he coming home?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know. He didn’t say.’ Meera looked at her tightly clenched fingers. ‘Time to go to school. We can talk about this later,’ she said, injecting a breeziness into her voice. If she didn’t show how perturbed she was, maybe he wouldn’t be too worried.
Saro and Lily read the email together. They looked at each other without speaking. Then Lily began, ‘I don’t understand why he sounds so trapped…’
‘Is it us, Meera? Are we the reason?’ Saro asked tentatively.
‘I don’t know, Ma, I really don’t understand what’s got into Giri.’ Meera found she couldn’t put on a brave face any more.
‘Call him. Tell him we’ll leave,’ Lily said. ‘He can have the house and you to himself.’
‘We’ll tell him that!’ Saro added.
Meera shook her head. ‘I don’t think it’s that. Really. I think he just grew tired of us… this life!’
Lily snorted. ‘He isn’t a four-year-old. He is the father of two children. He has responsibilities.’
Saro put her arm around Meera. ‘I don’t think you should worry too much. It’s just a phase. Most men go through it. Even your daddy did. A few days away, and he’ll back here. You are a good wife, Meera, and he’ll never be able to replace you. Trust me, darling!’
Meera wished she could.
Meera next called Nayantara. How did one tell an adult child about her father’s flight? As a childish bid to escape the monotony
of everyday? But Nayantara snarled into the phone, ‘If this is about Daddy, I already know. He called me late in the night after he reached Chennai. What have you done to him, Mummy? How could you? You were never supportive. That’s why he had to run. You were stifling him. I can see it now….’
Meera clutched the phone to her ear. Her daughter’s voice shrilled through it.
‘He drove from the hotel straight to Chennai that afternoon,’ Nayantara said. ‘He couldn’t bear it any more. He was crying, Mummy. Do you know what it is to hear a man cry? To hear Daddy say again and again – I am sorry, baby, but I had to leave. I didn’t know what else to do… It broke my heart. You did this to him! I can forgive you anything but this. You stole his dignity. You did this to him!’
Meera thought, how is it that my life has never risen above a series of clichés: Big house, poor inmates; boy comes on work to house, falls in love with house and girl; they have two children – boy and girl; man rises in career, wife trails him, happy to be his helpmate; the crisis of middle-age; man abandons wife; family divides – boy with mother, daughter declaring her allegiance to the father…
‘Shut up, Nayantara,’ she hissed. ‘You don’t know anything about Daddy and me. He has always spoilt you and that’s what you are – a silly spoilt brat sitting on judgement on her mother merely because she’s been the one to lay down the law.’
She heard Nayantara draw in her breath. The enraged silence. And then the click of the phone.
One more cliché. Daughter hangs up on mother, unable to face the truth. Nayantara doesn’t mean it. She is frightened, confused, and needs someone to blame, Meera told herself again and again when her daughter’s accusations came back to haunt her.
Meera crosses her legs. Giri is late. She glances at her wrist. She would have liked to go to the bathroom, put on some lip gloss, and
check her sari. But what if he comes then? She doesn’t want him thinking that she failed to turn up.
Her eyes travel across the room once again, halting at the large floral arrangement of birds of paradise, ginger lilies and ferns on an antique round table. The plump cushions on the cane sofas, the glistening leaves of the indoor plants in gigantic brass planters and the sparkling floors. It is exactly the kind of setting Giri fancies himself in. She smiles, unable to help the bitterness that corrodes the stretching of her lips.
She goes to stand by the plate-glass window. Outside, it is an idyllic world. A butterfly hovers over a cluster of frangipani flowers. The breeze rustles the leaves. In the pool, koi carp frolic.
The perfect world as glimpsed from an air-conditioned room. Nothing to hint at the scorching sunshine or the grime outside. Neither sweat nor dust. Pretty much what my life used to be like until now, Meera sighs, and then catches herself in time.
She has taken to watching TV documentaries at night, these last few weeks. Stories of tribal women in Afghanistan dying in childbirth; the starving children of Darfur; the wounded, the maimed. The more suffering that is unveiled before her, the less isolated she feels. In her head echoes the refrain of a woman speaking about her seventeen-year-old daughter’s death: The god who gives is also the god who takes.
Then the children found her one night. Nayantara, still unwilling to absolve her mother of blame and yet longing to comfort her. ‘Mummy, why do you watch such depressing programmes?’
And Nikhil, poor Nikhil, who has appointed himself her chief cheerleader: ‘I have a DVD of
. Shall we watch that? It’s all about people who discover that they have special talents – supernatural powers.’
Meera sighed. ‘I wish I had supernatural powers. I don’t. I am just an ordinary…’
‘Please,’ the children cried in unison, coming to sit by her side. ‘Please don’t start. We know what you are going to say.’
Nikhil slipped his hand into hers. ‘Why do you sigh so much, Mummy?’
‘It’s depressing, that long intake of breath, the loud exhalation, I tell you, it’s depressing.’ Nayantara took her other elbow.
Meera looked away and said, ‘Do you know what Keats wrote – There’s a sigh for yes, and a sigh for no/ And a sigh for I can’t bear it/O what can be done, shall we stay or run?’
Meera caught the children staring at each other with an almost comical look of horror on their faces. Mummy had taken to reciting poetry. What next?
So Meera resolved to never sigh. Or, at least, not as often as she seemed to these days.
She sees him come through the lobby doors. And it seems that he has seen her, for he walks straight towards her. Meera looks at the floor, trying to still her heart, trying to control her features from collapsing into a scream of reproach, trying to still her tongue from incoherence – accusations, reproach, pleas… In how many ways do I confront thee?
She raises her eyes to his. What can she expect? Remorse, perhaps. Petulance, too. She knows Giri hates to admit he is wrong. Even when his misdemeanours stare him in the face, he seldom apologizes. And when he does, it is with poor grace. Awkward, bitten down words giving away nothing but that which is absolutely necessary. Meera has learnt to accept these as his best effort. What will he say now?
She knows what she must do. She must make it easy for him. Meet him halfway. That is what marriage is all about, she will show him. A tree that will not be uprooted even if it has taken a rather
bad battering. Whatever happened is best buried, she will say. I won’t ask you anything, unless you choose to tell me. I will not ever bring it up and no one else will either. We’ll just go on as if you were on a business trip these six weeks. It is enough, Giri, that you are here and we are together. Nothing else is important, she will murmur, and slip her hand into his. See, I am not that cold unfeeling woman you accuse me of being, the warmth of her hand in his will tell him. See, see, see how important you are to me…
He stands there. And in that stance, arms tight against his sides, his feet at ease, his face clenched and his eyes obtuse, Meera reads a disavowal. Even before he speaks a word, she knows. She has lost him.
‘Meera,’ Giri says.
She stands up. The words dry up in her mouth. What is she to say? Hello? Goodbye? She feels wrung out. She wants to go home and lie down. Pull the quilt over her head and burrow herself in a warm, dark place where nothing will change and all is safe and restful.
‘Come,’ he says and leads the way to the coffee shop.
Something, is it a sob or a fishbone of anguish, shifts in her throat.
Doesn’t he remember? When the Oberoi opened, they would come to the coffee shop late in the night. The kids, Giri and she. They would drive into town for ice cream at Lake View. Apricots and cream in winter. Strawberries and cream in summer. And then for coffee to the Oberoi. For cappuccinos in wide shallow cups with cinnamon dust speckling the froth. Enough, Meera had thought then, spooning the foam into her mouth, was this. What more could she want but Giri and the children and these quiet moments of content?
They sit across each other. ‘What shall I say?’ he begins.
She waits. What will he say?
‘That afternoon, I hadn’t planned it, I swear. I hadn’t meant to disappear like that. Or frighten you. I had wanted to sit down with you somewhere quiet and talk to you. Tell you how I was feeling. You would understand, I knew. You were the one person I could say anything to. You know that, don’t you?’
Meera moves the cutlery around, as if to get it right. She doesn’t give a toss really. But if she doesn’t give her hands something to do, occupy part of her mind, she will grab him by his collar and scream, ‘What the fuck are you leading up to? What am I supposed to have understood? Just say it and let me go.’
‘So there I was. Standing with a group. They were all young, the men and women. But it was the men who made me want to sit down and howl. Their confidence, their zest for life… Meera, I watched them. I smoked one cigarette after the other. I thought, if I could get that buzz, all would be well. I wouldn’t feel so completely left behind. But I couldn’t bear the taste of wine. I asked for scotch then. That didn’t work either. I couldn’t drink. I took one sip and left the glass on a table.’
Meera shudders at the word scotch. Whisky, single malt or blended malts, she aches to correct him. Then she shuts herself up. How can she be such a pedant? Insisting on the right word when her husband is trying to explain why he did what he did. Somewhere in me, she thinks, I feel this is all a joke. He will finish with his explanations and we will go home together.
‘And I watched the young men so full of ambition and dreams and I thought, what have I done with my life? I felt as if I was being strangled, slowly but surely. I had to move on,’ Giri murmurs.
He waits for Meera to speak. To interject, to question, to merely react. But Meera, done with the cutlery, is rearranging the stack of sweeteners in their silver dish. Later she will ask herself, if she had spoken then, would the ebb of conversation have receded in another direction? Was it her silence that goaded
Giri to finish on the note of ‘there-is-no-room-for-negotiation-here’?
‘So I left. I didn’t understand or even realize why I was doing what I was doing. I didn’t think you would understand how I felt either.’
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