Shakti is approaching her 7th year of university; most would agree that she has overstayed her time. Outside of her studies, she is like any other 23 year old: she recently binge-watched Season 2 of You, and is looking forward to trash-talking new episodes of Married at First Sight.
Faisal stood in front of Veda Graham. It was smaller than he remembered, less endearing. A carpet of moss had begun to creep down from the terrace, like shadows escaping the harsh Carnatic sun. Birds had taken refuge on the windowsills of level four, and fired bullets of defence onto the windows of bullyish children.
The deep humming of the taxi’s engine jolted Faisal from his lull,
… or was it jet lag,
… or severe guilt.
Faisal fingered his pocket for a cigarette. He desperately needed a smoke. He had rediscovered his love for beedis on the layover in Mumbai. The trick was to inhale the fibrous strain three times before exhaling. Beedis were a toxic mix of tobacco, carbon monoxide and tar. For fifty rupees a pop, inhaling the fumes from car exhausts could deliver a deeper choke. Faisal thought about dropping the cigarette and letting the embers ignite the rubbish: silver foil Lay’s packets, plastic bags and yesterday’s newspaper. In those days, the footpath would be littered with beedi stubs. Common sense stopped him. Dusk had an unassuming way about her. Some days an afternoon wind would whip through the city and drive sheets of grit before it, smacking into windscreens and punishing cyclists who didn’t wear helmets. People waited for the rain that always followed a dust storm, but it never came. Other days, the sun burned through the haze and a shimmering mist of dust, pollution and everything in between would settle onto the streets below a fairy floss sky.
Conscious that he had been dreaming of cigarettes and fairy floss, Faisal turned to pay the taxi driver. Sad but not surprised that his whole life fitted into one suitcase, he opened the door. The main foyer gave off the scent of being vacant. An ‘out of order’ sign hung from the rusted handle of the metal elevator; generations of spiders had grown accustomed to the stationary lift, now in its twentieth year of non-service. To the left, a withered money plant hung bare across the entrance of 101. A pair of adult slippers and infant’s – barely size zero – had been flung carelessly off the shoe rack. These were the things Faisal noticed: busy family, too occupied by their child to organise their shoes. These were the things he missed: happy family, too happy in their mess.
With each progressive level, the apartments became larger. There were only two on level four, his and hers. How disconcerting, he thought: Two people, He and She, not Them. Faisal was under no illusion that his return would be a happy one. Not the unburdened happiness, reckless love and ripened mangoes that defined his youth. It’s strange how memories of death often consume memories of life. And so many unanswered questions follow: Had they done everything they could? Was it his fault? When would the Hurt stop? He wanted to leave Loss at the door; to give Loss one impassioned “fuck you!”
He gulped, stole one last look at 401 and turned the key.
The floorboards let out a sigh with each step, as if to reject Faisal and his excess baggage. Someone had taken down the photographs in the hallway; jaundice outlines were the only evidence that a family had once occupied this space. Faisal closed his eyes, and allowed the particles of dust, mixed with mildew and yesterday’s meal to seep through his skin. To his left, nani’s day bed remained propped against the far-east window. Every day at 11 o’clock Faisal would bring her sugary tea and glucose biscuits; she’d vowed to beat high blood pressure before it beat her. Glucose biscuits were her small joys, that, and complaining of the soulless Hindi that had replaced the mellifluous Tamil of her romantic youth: “Arre baap re the traffic here, the people, the SMELL, no culture! CHI CHI CHIII,” as she pointed hysterically to the market.
Across from the market, the Coffee House, which had been there since the days of the Revolution seemed a world away. The poor would gather to glimpse the elites in their oozing-gold jewels and raw silk saris. The elites would gather to compare the hefts of their wallets and boast of their salacious rendezvous with “that actor in that film.” In between the endless gossip, there came the more pleasant aroma of new stories: “100 crore shaadi and a 9-tier wedding cake!” “A writer? Log kya kahenge??” “Let’s just go na, fuck this place! We’ll go abroad; no parents, just you and me,” whose smells were all mixed up with those of filter coffee and vade.
Faisal remembered the way she smelt; he remembered that at first, it had repulsed him. Ambica Hair Oil had quickly amassed a following of young, glistening hopefuls in the South. Oily was the new modern, and to be modern was to join the cosmopolitan rat race. In 2004, Qantas had begun non-stop flights to India. The all-too-round and pink-faced CEO clapped his hands together and bowed in respect – Namaste – as he unveiled his spick new airbus, fortuitously placed next to an advertisement for Ambica: ‘It’s your time to shine.’
The first time Faisal spoke to Apoorna, she was leaving milk tokens for the doodh wallah. A white cloth had unraveled itself from her thick, unruly hair, revealing what they joked was ‘pagan ink’ on the nape of her neck. The second time he spoke to her, she had attracted a following of rabid strays. Cold, sticky Vanilla Magic oozed through the gaps in her fingers, and dripped onto the wet noses of hungry pups. Their blind mother, a hopelessly malnourished dog, head slightly cocked, watched on with opaque green eyes.
And so it went …
The last time they met, he told her to run away with him. They could catch the non-stop flight to Australia. “Let’s just go na, fuck this place! We’ll go abroad; no parents, just you and me.”
Maharaja’s peanuts, the recipe was simple enough: roasted peanuts, chopped red onion, salt, lemon juice, thin slices of green chilli and tomatoes. Faisal’s mother had sworn this concoction was the cure for pregnancy pains.
Faisal sliced the final green chilli … “SHIT!” Warm blood oozed from his finger and seeped into his wedding band. He reached for the nearest cloth, tattered like everything else in this house. Putting what could be salvaged of his dinner into a bowl, Faisal walked into the living room. He imagined Apoorna sitting on the couch; feet up, hands resting on the mound of her belly. She wouldn’t flinch, her eyes fixated on the television. Soon, five p.m became a routine: peanuts, Deal or No Deal and Andrew O’Keefe. Faisal was just background noise, the intruder on his wife’s love-affair with that “gora.” And every day the shouting got louder: “Not briefcase seven!…Two in six chance!…No deal, NO DEAL,” as she used a pillow to muffle her screams.
Their first years in Australia consisted of attending dinner parties and hosting now and then, with that Mr. Malhotra, Mrs. and Mr. Singh, the Khans, and Tina Mehra, not to be mistaken with Mrs. Mehra of course. These occasions were a melting pot of Indians: expats, NRIs, tourists and empty-nesters; suddenly they seemed to be the most important people in the world. Faisal and Apoorna were a story of intrigue; rebellious lovers who had discarded their families and faith for freedom. Most commonly the women wanted to know: “ … but he didn’t force you na?” And the men: “A Hindu girl? Reminds me of my first crush Momina / Leila / Farida,” as they swished (and downed) their reminisces with glasses of Johnny Walker.
Then Apoorna became a curator, and Faisal began his doctorate.
Apoorna became Anna, relatable, Australian … but never quite. Clients loved that her skin dripped melanin and honey; they commented on her collarbones that winged out from the base of her neck. Her Otherness gave them a misplaced sense of authority on Indian culture and art, all within the confines of a Leichardt gallery.
Faisal buried himself in his thesis. He was familiar with Tagore; they had studied his poetry in school. He enjoyed how the alliteration slipped off his tongue and landed firmly on the centre of the page: “Freedom from fear is the freedom.” He admired the ease at which Tagore’s narrative transitioned between fiction and fact, when there may otherwise have been a warring of disciplines. Mostly, Faisal felt nostalgia. He had scribbled on the back of a note-pad:
He longed to understand how literature could summon such feelings. He longed to conquer it.
With the help of friends, they moved into a two-bedroom weatherboard near Ashfield. Faisal remembered Apoorna walking through the empty rooms, tapping her fingers on the doors and caressing the imperfections on the walls. She seemed enthralled by what she saw; he wasn’t sure they were seeing the same things. They sat together at the bay windows that looked out at their new suburb. He asked Apoorna if he could smoke.“Of course, it’s our home now.” She made no further attempt at conversation, and appeared at ease with the silence. Faisal liked to imagine she was thinking about their life; no doubt, she would ask him to quit smoking when the kids came. He could teach them to ride bikes, and patch-up their knees when speed got the better of them. She would teach them to cook, to eat with their hands and blow twice before putting hot kheer into their mouths. Who would teach them about India? About love Lost and love Gained?
A week later, their neighbour – a small wiry-haired grandmother called Rosetta – gifted them an allamanda sapling. Allamandas, she said, were hardy shrubs that required “watering twice a day, and plenty of sun.” Apoorna took to nurturing the sapling, fussing, feeding it … until it almost drowned in its own wet soil. When they discovered the plant wheezing for its final breath, Faisal held his inconsolable wife in his arms.
Suddenly, a small wiry head appeared over the back fence. Faisal struggled to recall Rosetta’s exact words, but he swore it sounded a lot like “Mamma mia!”
The Coffee House possessed all the grandeur of colonial architecture meets post-independence hullabaloo. Faisal sat in the far corner, waiting to catch the eye of disinterested staff. How delicious, he thought. From his seat he yielded the power of objective study, and could pass the hours in silent observation; not a word spoken, that wasn’t needed.
A barely groomed, barely pubescent waiter finally approached.“What are today’s specials?” He drew a long breath, then: “Vegetablestewvegetablecurrychickencurrychickenpulao…” Faisal sighed; his ancestors would certainly be turning in their graves.
On the next table, old men: Friends? Brothers? Last-Chance-Reconcilers? appeared to be meeting under the pretense of solving past conflicts. On cue, the older, more verbose of the two burst out laughing. As he did, stained dentures came tumbling out; its owner hurriedly gobbling them up. The other, feeling claustrophobic and embarrassed signalled for the bill. “I don’t think this is working. Meeting like this was a mistake.” Faisal perked up. A ‘lovers’ tiff, that sounded familiar.
“When we were young …”
“But the past, doesn’t that count for something?”
The younger, more reserved of the two pondered: “Not as much as you would hope. The present changes the past, Hari.”
The Last-Chance-Reconcilers shook hands one last time. Not a word spoken; that wasn’t needed. Faisal could appreciate the intimacy of the handshake – the self-conscious effort, the immediate impact, the chain of bioelectric and chemical changes that relaxed both men. Perhaps this unspoken language, this distance could keep their feelings unchanged.
Faisal ordered another gin and tonic. Across the room, a young couple – barely twenty – played cat and mouse, oblivious of their surrounds. First they measured their hands, intertwining ten fingers in an awkward embrace. Soon he was examining
hair follicle up until her elbow.
Then her jaw, neck, legs weaving in-and-out in a sloppy dance.
“Kiss me,” he mouthed. “Not in public,” she scolded – half terrified, half delirious. A waiter who had innocently interrupted, inadvertently caused an ellipsis … just enough time for the girl to decide. Slowly, she closed her eyes and leaned forward matching the mould of his lips to hers.
Faisal downed his drink, as the pangs of jealousy coursed through him. He admired their youthful rashness; he wished he still had it in him. He thought of the last time he had visited the Coffee House, Apoorna and him. Whilst Jahanara Begum “loved him very much, and thought Apoorna a nice girl, their union was wrong in the eyes of the caliphate.” Aadinathan Tirtha, who was by now, predisposed to cursing whenever Faisal’s name was mentioned, told Apoorna to: “leave him, or suffer the same fate as her mother!” So they sat in the Coffee House, measuring, remembering:
the distance between their eyebrows,
the length of their lashes,
the moles on their cheeks,
the plumpness of their lips …
… in case it was the last time they met.
He had thought about Tagore, about his ruminations on love and freedom – really, they were the same thing. “Love does not claim possession, but gives freedom.” Faisal had taken her left hand in his, and with the other, tucked loose strands of hair behind her ear. Ambica Oil, he grinned. And like that, it was all so clear. They would catch the non-stop flight to Australia.
Not long after, Faisal was back at work. Apoorna, alone in the weatherboard house, suffering from exhaustion worse than labour, cried the whole day. She cried in the shower, pressing her head against the cold glass frame. She cried in the kitchen as she cut chicken, and roasted masala over the stove. She cried when she called Faisal’s mobile and it went to voicemail.
Faisal – at university – turned his phone off. He hadn’t summoned the courage to face her; in all honesty, he hadn’t even tried. He had never been good at confrontation, he found avoiding problems caused less anxiety. What was left to say? He knew she blamed him. Faisal had been invited to deliver the key-note address at an All India Conference in Melbourne. His mentor, an ancient relic of the History Department, told him he had made “Tagore cool again” – that was all the assurance he needed. An hour in, he received a phone call from the hospital: Apoorna had gone into labour. Their neighbour – a small wiry-haired grandmother – brought her in. They did everything they could, but the baby was in breech. They were very sorry. When Faisal returned to Sydney, Apoorna was asleep. The obstetrician held his hand and smiled, in a way that only doctors were practised in.
The Five Steps of Reconciliation, a guide handed to bereaved parents became a door stop. Faisal never grappled with denial, maybe because he had never known their son, never held him. He mastered avoidance, they both did. Most days he was gone before Apoorna woke up. On the commute to work, he wondered whether she would still roll onto his pillow, and sprawl across the bed like an octopus laying claim to her throne. Though nowadays she was thorough in marking her side of the bed. In the evenings, Apoorna told him “not to wait up.” Before exhibitions, she would fret over every inch of her appearance, staining her waterline with the darkest kajal to divert attention away from her puffy eyes.
It was a warm evening with little breeze, a broken yellow moon sat low on the horizon. Fasial opened the front door, letting the strap of his leather satchel slip from his shoulders and collapse on the hallway floor. He walked through the living room, kitchen … daal was simmering on the stove. A creak, groan and snap could be heard from the yard. Apoorna, with a mattock in hand, hacked at the allamanda. Her eyes, delirious with pain and questioning – how could a plant survive, but not her child? Her screams, tortured and laboured. A yellow juice ran freely from the shrub’s wounds, and bled down her arms. Faisal ran to her, freeing the mattock from her grasp. “I used to be a planner, I planned everything. It was meant to be okay!!” she offered with desperation.
They had planned.
Faisal had drawn up colour coded schedules. At the start of her third trimester he began working from home, massaging her swollen feet at thirty minute intervals. The week before she was due, they timed contractions and practised breathing, like two embryos – He and Her, attached to a third.
Faisal looked at the allamanda now; he understood.
Then they sat for a while, separated by the experience of her labour, but joined by a story. And the memory of their son. A breeze had begun to separate the mangled twigs from the shrub, and the broken yellow moon had risen far into the sky.
Faisal looked at Apoorna, he studied the creases beneath her eyes, the remnants of lipstick on the outer perimeter of her mouth. Slowly, he kissed her neck and made his way up to her jaw. She quivered under his touch. Feeling their way to the bedroom, they giggled like teenagers as they tore their clothes off, and made love with a desperation they had forgotten. She clung to his back, digging her nails into the arches. Then she wept: “I’m sorry, Faisal.”
Faisal exited the Coffee House. He thought about Apoorna, back home in Australia. He thought about the word ‘home’; he hated that it was monosyllabic – he wanted more of it. “Home…homme…hooooeme.” For the first time that year, Faisal laughed.