‘BEND AT THE WAIST, Mr. Shinde,’ said Madhavi, and Vilasrao tried to obey her through clenched teeth and puffing nostrils. They were doing the Trikonasana today, and it had looked the easiest thing in the world when she demonstrated it a few minutes ago. But now his chest swelled and receded with each harried breath, and the leg over which he was meant to bend was trembling like a leaf. He stole a glance to the left; a petite young girl with a circular face was staring straight ahead, having already eased herself into position. A glance to the right gave him some comfort; a man in a grey-sprinkled beard, grinning shamefacedly at his mat.
Vilasrao heard steps approach from behind him. He hurriedly adjusted his gaze to the wall ahead. ‘Center yourself,’ she said. ‘Look straight ahead. You’re not in competition with anyone else. Mr. Shinde, I need you to try and bend just a little bit more.’
Vilasrao tried again; he wanted nothing more than to win her approval. This time his other leg began to shake.
Madhavi came to his front, turned around, and spread her legs out so that she could look at him eye to eye. She straightened his arm, whispered, ‘Does that hurt?’
Vilasrao shook his head.
‘Good, you don’t want to push yourself too hard in your first class.’
Vilasrao nodded. Without his intention a low burn had begun in his cheeks, and his eyes fluttered when they met hers, even in this half-upside down position. The touch of her fingers on his wrist was reedy and dry, not what he had imagined it would be, but it quickened his breath all the same.
She smiled, the way one smiled at a cute dog. ‘You can call me Madhavi. Everyone else does.’
‘Yes, madam,’ he said.
She glided away toward the round-faced girl on his left, examined her posture, and nodded with approval. ‘You might want to try looking up at the ceiling while in this pose,’ she told her softly. ‘It will give your shoulders a nice stretch.’
The woman obeyed, and Madhavi nodded again, a peaceful smile lighting up her face. She had small, anxious eyes set on each side of a beaky nose. And glowing skin and hair that reminded Vilasrao of Nandini as a baby, before she had turned one. Asha, on the other hand, was plagued by rash throughout her first year; it had covered her cheeks and neck in pink spots that had worried them sick, until the doctor prescribed a rather expensive moisturiser that helped it somewhat.
He cleared his throat. He tried to look up at the ceiling too, but two things happened, almost at once.
First, he heard a crack, a distant, remote sound that he thought was not from within his body. Then the leg that had been trembling all morning buckled at the knee. He toppled over in a rather graceless fashion, and if it were not for his hands that cushioned his fall, he would have landed on his nose.
As it was, he fell without a sound, and he did not hurt himself because the mat was thick enough, but he was conscious of sniggers all around him, and there was a distinct pause of a few seconds before Madhavi was at his side, helping him up. ‘Are you okay, Mr. Shinde?’ she said, and he could see that she was stifling a smile. ‘I hope you’re not hurt?’
‘No,’ he replied, regaining balance.
‘Maybe you should take it easy for the rest of the class.’ She looked at him in concern now. ‘I will see you tomorrow?’
‘Yes.’ He brushed her off in a sudden jolt of anger, rolled up his mat, and hurried out the room, his eyes aflame with tears.
* * *
He emptied the tea from the pot into two cups of black china. He covered one of them with a steel plate, picked up the other and took a tentative sip. A sound of wings fluttering came from the kitchen window. ‘Is that you, Prema?’ he said, reaching at the same time for the tin of sugar. ‘Well, I don’t blame her for laughing, you know. Don’t you remember how much we used to laugh at people when we went walking? Why complain when the same thing happens to us? Eh?’
Vilasrao added two spoons of sugar to his cup, paused for a thought, then added half a spoon more while throwing a cautious glance at the window. ‘I am sure you would have laughed too, if you were there.’ He stood for a minute in silence, stirring the cup. ‘I felt bad, I did,’ he said, ‘but now that I think about it, what was wrong in what she did? She’s only human, isn’t she? And she was being awfully nice to me throughout. If anything, it was I who was too rude, walking away in a huff like that. Maybe I will go tomorrow and apologize. Do you think I should?’
No response came to him from the window. Vilasrao took a few tentative steps toward the sill, craning his neck. ‘Oh my,’ he murmured to himself, as his eyes first fell on the broken shells in the pigeon’s nest. ‘Oh my, what has happened?’ The green-clad doll he had erected the week before to scare crows away now lay crumpled up to the side. His Prema was nowhere to be seen; the wings he had heard a few moments bank must have been another bird. Or maybe she had come, seen her nest mangled in this way, and flown off to a quiet corner to grieve.
He slid open the glass window pane, reached out for his doll, dusted it against the wall. Asha used to carry this to bed every night, he remembered, well into her fourth year. The green scarf that bundled the head was now in tatters, eaten up by time, and the hem of the frock had long worn off.
Vilasrao looked into the doll’s eyes and smiled. Well, he thought, nothing to worry. Another pigeon – another Prema – would come along shortly. He just had to wait.
He went to the dining table. Four apples sat snugly together in the fruit bowl. He had never liked apples, but had made it a habit to eat one every day for the last year. When Prema was around she would cajole, bribe and scold him into it; now he imagined her sitting across the table with her arms folded, watching him with quiet approval as he ate.
He jerked open the door to the cabinet that stood against the wall. They had gotten it made the year they moved in; a carpenter called Lila Ram had assured them that it would be the best cabinet they ever owned. ‘I will get polish all the way from Uttar Pradesh, sir,’ he had said, ‘and fittings from Mysore. The very best.’ Lila Ram’s two front teeth were chipped in the corner, leaving a diamond-shaped hole in his mouth whenever he grinned.
Prema had said he didn’t look like one to be trusted. A few months later she noticed that the doors made a yawning sound whenever they were opened or closed. For a year after that, whenever they fought, the cabinet would come up. Lila Ram would come up. Vilasrao would promise that he would see to it that the cabinet be replaced by something made of teak that didn’t make a sound. And then tempers would cool, and they would both forget about it.
By the second year, the yawn had become part of their lives. Asha’s favourite pastime as a seven-month-old was to crawl over to the cabinet, swing the door open and shut, and babble at it for minutes on end.
Vilasrao opened it now. The yawn echoed in the house. It seemed to sneak into the kids’ rooms too, and bring back old, forgotten smells. He reached in with a ginger hand – trembling – to hold Prema’s photograph that stood on the second rung, next to the heaped dust-gathering glass bowls. His fingertips ran down the length of the blackened brass frame.
Prema was looking at the camera, smiling just with the lips. (She had smiled just with the lips, right to the very end.) Her hair in the picture was dark, which did not mean anything; she had coloured her hair on the morning of the day she died, too. He frowned at her, trying to recollect when the picture was taken. But nothing came back. He looked at her jewels and about her clothes for hints. A gold necklace. Two green bangles on each wrist. A yellow sari, blue border. Shoulder-length hair, untied. Glassy lips. A spot of natural pink to the cheeks. She was in some sort of a meadow, with the sunlight streaking across her face from the left. Two strands of hair half-covering the shadowed eye. The smile had a touch of the coquettish about it; the kind of smile she used to give him in bed during their first year together. Before Asha. That meant that it had probably been him on the other side of the camera. But when did this happen? Where were the kids?
Vilasrao gave her face a light caress, but all he touched was the cold surface of laminate. He withdrew his hand, gave the wall clock a glance on his way to the kitchen. A short pause mid-step, listening for wings at the window. There were none. He removed the steel lid covering the other tea cup. With a swirl of a fingertip he removed the layer of cream that had collected on top of the tea, and left it clinging to the cup’s edge. He brought it with him into the living room.
It was nine a.m.
He heard laughter and conversation from the hallway. The people of Temple Towers were up and about. Fathers hurried to work. Children hurried to school. Housewives followed their housekeepers around their houses. Vilasrao’s own maid – one Prema had installed five years ago – would arrive at eleven and leave at eleven forty five. She did not make eye contact. Did not speak unless spoken to, or unless it was the first of the month.
Vilasrao sat at the edge of the sofa facing the television. He placed his hands on his knees. He watched the tea, stale and brown in the dull light. He had kept up the habit of making two cups every morning; on most days it helped trick his mind into thinking that there was someone else in the house. But on some days, it didn’t.
He picked it up, drank it all in two large gulps. Then he smiled at it, with just the lips, the way Prema would have.
He looked up at the clock. It said nine-ten.
* * *
The bell rang right at the stroke of twelve, after Durga had gone. She had made a face when he told her that he would be docking her pay for the four days she had not come the month before. He had always argued with Prema not to be so ruthless, but now he did the same, in her honour.
He did not move from the couch; the fall he had at yoga that morning was beginning to sting, and his knees always turned cranky during the afternoons; that was their way of telling him that it was time for a nap. In any case, he thought, it must be a mistake of some sort; he did not get visitors, not during the day in any case.
But the bell rang again, twice this time.
‘Who is it?’ he groaned, and struggled to his feet. He discovered that his left ankle had developed a bit of a sprain. He limped to the door, therefore, and unlatched it. He knew that he had to be careful, that he should look through the peephole and make certain that it was no one dangerous, but what the hell, he was past all that, wasn’t he? It was one of those days; he would gladly accept a blow to the head if he could be promised that it would be the end of it all.
But the voice that came at him from the other side brought that familiar, shameful jolt of sudden delight.
‘Mr. Shinde?’ she said. ‘It’s me. Madhavi.’
His hand stopped on the knob, half-way into the motion of twisting it open. He straightened himself. A low clearing of the throat. A shrug of the shoulders. A quick look about himself. He erected a smile upon his face, and hoped that the dark circles around the eyes would not show.
Then he opened the door.
Madhavi beamed up at him; unlike Prema’s her smile was all white teeth and red lips. She held something yellow with a black cap in her hand. She thrust it out at him. Her head leaned to one side, and she said, ‘I think you forgot your water bottle at the class this morning.’
‘Ah, yes,’ said Vilasrao, and snatched it out of her hands. ‘Yes, thank you.’
For a moment they stood there, her looking up and down the hallway, him staring at the ground by her feet. She wore sea-green house slippers that colour-matched with her pyjamas. Red-painted toenails.
‘I am also sorry about this morning,’ she said, just as Vilasrao was thinking up ways to say goodbye. ‘I did not mean to laugh, but – but – oh, hell, you’re cute!’
Vilasrao brought his eyes up to meet hers, and blinked. This time he cast a careful look up and down the corridor. All the front doors were shut, but any one of them could open, any moment. And it would start a bit of a fire among the housewives’ club. And it would spread to the husbands before that night, and to the retirees by the next day.
So he said, ‘Would you – er – like to come in? I can make some tea, as thanks for bringing back my water bottle.’
Another wide smile flashed on Madhavi’s lips. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’d like that.’
* * *
‘She doesn’t like me,’ said Vilasrao to the empty kitchen, while washing the tea cups in the sink. ‘She was just being nice. Girls of this generation are like that, Prema. Not like in our time.’
Prema’s voice replied from deep within him. Or from the cabinet. He did not know. ‘I saw how she smiled at you, Vilas,’ she said. ‘That’s not a girl being nice, let me tell you. I am a girl too. I would know.’
‘You may be a girl, but you’re also crazy,’ said Vilasrao. He wiped his hands with the napkin at the drying rod next to the wash basin. ‘Why would a woman like her fancy a man like me? There are so many men out there who are more – suited.’
‘Maybe in her mind you’re most suited,’ said Prema, and Vilasrao pictured her shrugging and pursing her lips together, as if to say what can you do? It was one of Prema’s trademark gestures, one that tided them over many sticky moments. ‘You know what you should do? The next time she comes over –’
‘Ho. Ho,’ said Vilasrao gravely, coming to the cabinet and facing Prema in the photograph now. ‘Can you please stop trying to set me up? I am not interested.’
‘Not interested, my foot!’ said Prema. ‘Look at you. You mope around the house all day wearing that sullen expression on your face. You make two cups of tea even though it’s just you here. You sit on the couch as if someone had scolded you.’ She sighed, and her voice became a touch kinder. ‘It’s been long enough, Vilas. I wouldn’t mind. Really.’
‘This is not about you,’ said Vilasrao. ‘How can you be sure that she will come again? She came today only to return my water bottle.’
‘She did not leave after returning it, did she?’
‘She didn’t,’ Vilasrao admitted. ‘But as I said, she was just being nice. Kids these days have different rules. Besides, she reminds me of Nandini.’
‘You used to say Nandini reminds you of me.’
Vilasrao sighed, and the old feeling of being about to lose yet another argument to Prema rose in him. ‘Asha said she will call at one.’ He looked at the clock. It was already half past, and his eyes were beginning to get heavy.
‘You should not bother her, Vilas,’ said Prema. ‘Kids. Husband. Job. You remember how we were. How many times a month did you call your parents?’
‘I know,’ said Vilasrao. ‘I know.’
‘Nandini called you yesterday, didn’t she?’
‘Yeah,’ said Vilasrao. ‘If you could call it a call. Just spoke for a few minutes. Said she was about to go out to a party. When is she going to get married?’
‘Don’t ask her that,’ said Prema. ‘You know how mad she gets.’
‘I wish you were here.’
There was silence at that. Prema had this annoying habit of cutting a conversation short with no preamble, just when things got uncomfortable. He tightened his mouth and shook his head.
‘I shouldn’t have said that,’ he said. ‘But you would have known how to keep us all together.’
Again she did not respond. What would she say? What did he expect her to say? Well, he thought, rebelliously, a damned apology would be nice, for leaving him to fend for all this by himself. Nandini was pushing thirty now – with a quick calculation he realized she would turn thirty one in a couple of months – and she was still going out with friends, partying, god knew what else. Even if it meant another fight, the next time she called, he would make sure he would raise the topic.
‘Please don’t do that,’ said Prema.
‘Oh, so now you want to talk?’
‘Please don’t be like this.’
‘No, I will be like this only. Nandini needs to get married. You know that. I know that. I wonder why she pretends as if she does not.’
‘Well, Vilas,’ said Prema, ‘she does not need to marry. As you said, kids these days are a little different.’
Vilasrao walked away from the cabinet, muttering to himself that he should stop talking to lifeless photographs.
‘You’re going to call her now, aren’t you?’ said Prema.
‘Yes,’ said Vilasrao.
‘You’re sleepy, Vilas,’ said Prema. ‘Just go and have your nap.’
‘I don’t have to listen to you.’ Vilasrao went into the main bedroom, banged the door behind him. He took out his phone and tapped at Nandini’s name. Another tap turned on the speaker. He counted the rings – three, four, five. A click, and a computerised female voice announcing that the user was busy.
Vilasrao found his breath growing heavier. He kept his mouth shut, reminded himself to breathe. A message came from Nandini: ‘In a meeting. Will call you back.’
Vilasrao turned his phone off with a savage press of the main button. He lay down on the bed and watched the stationary ceiling fan.
‘I told you,’ said Prema kindly. ‘Why don’t you let it go and sleep for now. Hmm?’
* * *
The bell rang at noon the next day, again. When he opened the door, Madhavi looked up at him shyly and said, ‘Sorry, should I have called? I thought you’d be home.’
‘No no,’ he said, ‘come in.’
* * *
‘Was I not right?’ said Prema, after he had finished washing the tea cups. ‘She did return, didn’t she?’
‘She did,’ said Vilasrao.
‘And she got you to play the keyboard.’ Did he detect a twinge of envy in Prema’s voice? ‘I’ve always told you that you should play but you wouldn’t listen. A hot yoga teacher asks and –’
‘Relax, Vilas. I am only joking. I am glad that you’re finally coming out of your funk. I enjoyed the song you played for her too.’
‘It was our song.’
‘Are you sure you’re okay with this?’
‘Yes, of course. Now if I had been alive, I would have poisoned the bitch.’
Vilasrao smiled. ‘We still don’t know if she will come again tomorrow. For all I know my playing scared her off.’
There was a pause, and Vilasrao pictured Prema folding her arms and shaking her head at him. ‘Perhaps,’ she said. ‘But just in case you’re wrong, you should shave. Or at least trim that beard. Who do you think you are? M. F. Hussain?’
‘Never mind. Trim the beard. Comb your hair. And have a bath, will you? Smell presentable for the lady, please.’
‘I won’t,’ said Vilasrao. ‘We don’t even know that she will come.’
‘You don’t,’ said Prema. ‘I do.’
In the bedroom, as he was readying for his nap, he saw that there were two missed calls from Nandini. They had come when he had been sitting out in the living room, playing for Madhavi. He did not call her back; she would be in a meeting. There was a message too, from someone new: Loved to hear you play, Mr. Shinde. Thank you. Same time tomorrow?
He remembered that Madhavi had taken his number that morning. He picked up his phone with an enthusiasm he had not felt in years. He sat on the edge of the bed. Wrote out a long message. Deleted it. Wrote out another one. Deleted that too. A short thank you message? Delete. A non-committal emoticon perhaps. No.
Then, with a low groan of disgust, he turned his phone off, and turned over on his stomach to bury his face under the pillow.
* * *
‘You’re looking nice today!’ said Madhavi, taking her tea cup.
Vilasrao adjusted his hair and smiled at the floor.
‘And I see that you’ve opened the curtains.’ Madhavi looked around the room. ‘The first day I came here, I thought I’d come into a house of ghosts.’
‘It is a house of ghosts,’ said Vilasrao. For a moment Madhavi looked at him seriously, then broke into a laugh.
‘Don’t scare me like that, Mr. Shinde,’ she said. But something of the pensiveness remained in her face. She looked out of the window at the balcony. ‘My apartment feels that way too, sometimes.’
She nodded. ‘Afternoons are the loneliest times.’
‘For you too?’ said Vilasrao. ‘I thought it was just for us old folks.’
‘Did you not hear, Mr. Shinde? Thirty is the new sixty.’
‘What about sixty, then?’ asked Vilasrao. ‘Ninety?’
‘No,’ said Madhavi, ‘the clock stops at sixty.’ She gave him a look out of the corner of her eye. ‘That means you and I, Mr. Shinde, are about the same age.’
‘You don’t want to be my age, madam,’ he said.
She reminded him more and more of Nandini, but that also meant that she reminded him of Prema too, though they were nothing like each other. Madhavi was shorter than Prema, though thinner, curvier, and more graceful with her movements. More cultured in her manner of speaking.
‘Madhavi,’ she said. ‘When you call me madam I feel like an aunty.’
‘How old are you?’ asked Vilasrao, following the train of his thought as if she had not spoken.
She smiled at the openness of the question. ‘Thirty one.’
‘Is this what you say to young women when they’re with you in your apartment?’
‘I – I don’t have much experience with women, young or otherwise. I only know my wife and my daughters.’
Hesitation entered Madhavi’s eyes. Vilasrao realized that they had not spoken of family and circumstances in all this time. They had each found the other alone, and had just accepted it without questioning. ‘Your wife – um –’
‘She is dead,’ said Vilasrao. ‘She died last year in an accident.’
‘I am so sorry.’
Vilasrao shook his head. ‘No.’
‘And your daughters?’
‘One of them lives in the US. Two kids of her own. The younger one is in Pune. She lives alone – like you do here. What about your parents?’
She began to speak, but caught herself. ‘Can we pretend that we did not speak of this? I’d like it if we didn’t get to know each other too well.’
Vilasrao nodded. ‘Certainly. You can be the hot yoga teacher.’
‘And you can be my romantic keyboard player.’ Her eyes lit up, with Vilasrao thought was excitement. ‘We can give you a new life!’
‘A new life?’
‘Yes. Your name would still be Mr. Shinde, of course. I like that name – manly and strong. But your first name. Not Vilasrao. Something grander. Shivaji? You could be a retired spy, or even a retired Major from the Indian Army. These hands, Mr. Shinde, have held weapons.’ She moved closer to Vilasrao, and placed her cup on the table. ‘These hands,’ she said, and brushed his fingers with hers, ‘have killed people.’
‘I was an administrative clerk,’ stammered Vilasrao, ‘at BHEL.’
‘Shh,’ she said demurely. ‘But under cover, you were a spy. A RAW agent. And I am your assistant.’ Her voice dropped to a soft whisper. ‘Who has a teeny tiny crush on you.’
‘On – on me?’
‘Yes, on you. Can we do that, Mr. Shinde? Can we escape together from the drudgery of real life? Do we have to be hung up on who we are when we can be anything?’
She closed the distance between them in one graceful lunge, and her lips met his. He shut his eyes and savoured the moment, and a fleeting thought occurred to him that yes, he could play to Madhavi’s fantasy. What could go wrong? She guided his arms around her waist, and leaned into him with a sigh.
A ring on his phone jerked him back into the present, and he pushed Madhavi away. ‘I have to get the phone,’ he said, and stood up and dusted his clothes, as if he had fallen into a mud pit. ‘Also, I don’t think’ – he took a step away toward the bedroom – ‘I don’t think I can – I should –’
In the dark of the bedroom he saw it was Nandini on the phone. He touched the red button, turned it over and placed it on the bed. On the way out he paused for a moment at the dressing mirror. His eyes carried the heavy weight of shame. His mouth smelled of her, and there was a cloying dizziness in the scent, and a part of him wanted to go back in there and take her in his arms, but – well, there was no other way to say it – it was not him that she wanted.
He waited there looking at his reflection, rubbing his clean-shaven chin. Presently he heard the front door open and close. He did not hurry out. Only after he was sure that she had been gone a long time did he venture out. He collected the tea cups and took them to the sink. He began to wash them, first hers, then his. He waited for Prema to ask him what was wrong.
But she didn’t.
After lunch, lying on his back in the bedroom, Vilasrao sent Madhavi a message. He said, ‘Those who wish to escape reality are the ones that need the most to embrace it. Happy to talk about our real selves if you are. Same time tomorrow?’
After the message went through, he waited for ten minutes for a reply. He did not get it. So he turned off the phone and fell asleep.
He woke up two hours later, just as the afternoon light was greying. The first thing he did was to turn his phone on. There was another missed call from Nandini, a worried message from Asha who said she had heard from Nandini that he had fallen out of touch, and a fifty per cent off promotional message from the pest control service who had come the week before and fumigated the house for cockroaches.
But no answer from Madhavi.
With a sigh he tapped on Nandini’s name in his contact list. He counted up to four rings and hung up. He went into the kitchen for a glass of water, and heard the flap of wing at the window sill. He tiptoed over and peered at a pigeon couple cooing to each other, hopping about with twigs stuck in their beaks.
Vilasrao smiled and knocked at the glass. The birds looked up at him.
Prema’s voice came from the dining table cabinet. ‘She’s not coming back, is she?’
‘I don’t think so,’ he said.
‘Good riddance too,’ she said. ‘I was only pretending to be okay all this while.’
‘Is that so?’
‘You’re mine, Vilas. Just mine.’
The pigeons came together. Their necks touched. Vilasrao’s phone rang from the bedroom. He gulped down his glass of water and hurried over to answer it.
‘Hello?’ he said. ‘Yes, Nandu – of course I am all right – yes, I am taking my medicines – I promise, okay? – no, no, I was not avoiding – every day? Yes, but will you have the time? – Diwali? No plans. Yes, you’re always welcome – is that so? – a friend, you say? Yes, bring him home – no, no, I won’t scare him – no questions, yes – promise, promise – now aai might have some questions for this friend of yours – heh, heh – yes, Nandu, I miss her too – I miss her more than anything in the world –’