SHRAVAN SHARMA MADE TO light his cigarette. His hands shook. The silver-plated lighter almost slipped from his hands onto his thigh. Lying on its back an arm’s length away from him, his phone vibrated. Vinay. With a swipe of his thumb Shravan allowed the call to go to voicemail.
Inside their apartment’s single bedroom, the wheels of Mahima’s heavy suitcase grated on vitrified tile. From where he was sitting, legs stretched out on the cotton mattress in the living room, he could see her lemon-yellow Nike walking shoes by the main door, set properly next to each other, the points facing him. They had come in blue laces; she had changed them to black on the first night.
The wardrobe door opened and shut a couple of times. She muttered under her breath. Whenever she appeared at the door she stopped to glance at him. With concern? It could not be. With the courteous manner of a host attending to an overnight visitor – have you eaten? Would you like some coffee? That kind of thing.
Shravan succeeded in making the fire stick, and took a puff. They had spoken about him smoking inside the house. They had spoken about him smoking full stop. She had said the smell clung to the walls and the mattress, to his lips and teeth. She had said that kissing him felt like eating sawdust. But now it did not seem to bother her. It made him suck on the stub with angry purpose, as if the rising smoke rings could call her back into the room, and they could – they could what? What was left?
‘I have kept the milk on the stove,’ she said from inside. Shravan heard zips close, press-locks clicking into place. She appeared at the doorway with the handle of her suitcase drawn all the way out, held behind like she was an air-hostess. ‘Please have your milk on time. You know you get a headache if you don’t.’
‘Don’t pretend like we care about each other now,’ he said. Without warning his eyes began to pinch, and he blinked back whatever it was that blurred his vision, clouded his glasses. He did not want to cry, not again.
‘I will always care about you,’ she said. Shravan looked up at her. She had done her lips the way he had always told her he hated. Bright red. She had lined her eyes. Straightened her hair. Fresh paint on the nails. Fake. All fake. They had spoken about all this; they had agreed that this was a life they did not want. Or maybe during all those times she had nodded at him as if she understood, deep inside she had just been laughing.
‘Why don’t you sit down?’ said Shravan, his voice croaking like a frog’s at the very end. ‘There’s still time for your flight.’ He held his cigarette between the thumb and forefinger; it trembled, and dropped crumbs of ash on the floor. It should have bothered her. She noticed it, her lips moved as if forming the words, but returned to repose, back into the expression of polite indifference.
She patted herself on the side with her free hand, the other still clutching the suitcase handle. ‘I cannot sit down on the floor,’ she said. ‘It will mess up my clothes. Durga phoned. She said she will come today.’
‘Your dust allergy will flare up if you don’t pay attention to how she cleans the house,’ said Mahima. ‘She always misses the corner of the balcony.’
‘Change the mattress cover once every three days.’ Her eyes travelled down to the white-and-pink bed sheet on which he sat. Last night, before they had gone to sleep, he had laid a hand on her arm. She had pushed it away.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I will.’
‘Buy a washing machine when you can afford it,’ she said. ‘And maybe a cot so that you don’t have to sleep on the floor anymore.’
He smiled at her, shook his head. ‘Unbelievable.’
That word seemed to strike her across the face. He saw a shadow pass over the slanting, narrow nose, as if a light above her head had moved. ‘Can we not fight, please? We have spoken about it all. I told you what I feel.’
‘Yes,’ said Shravan, ‘you have. I am just stunned each time I think what a fool I have been. I thought you loved me.’
‘I did love you!’ she said. And as if she had heard her own words and been surprised by them: ‘I do love you.’
Shravan laughed. ‘Oh, no. Let’s not go there, please. You will tell me you’re leaving me for my own good. You will tell me that you’re afraid of hurting me.’ He stopped when the eyes began to smart again. He caught his lower lip with his teeth. He looked away at the window, tapped at his cigarette, blew out a stream of grey smoke. Again his glasses clouded with mist; it took them a moment to clear.
‘I think you and I will always have a connection,’ she said, looking straight at him. ‘The last two years – no one can take them away from us, can they?’
‘Well, no one can. But you are.’
‘Shravan, we talked about this. We’re not right for each other.’
‘We were right all this time.’
‘Well, we’re not right for each other now.’
‘What has changed, Mahi? Who has changed? You or me?’
‘Many things have changed,’ she said, and her fingers vacantly caressed the handle bar. ‘Both of us. You have become more – more –’ she sighed, as if exasperated with it all. ‘Must we go into it all over again? How many times must I tell you that it’s not enough for me anymore?’
‘What is not enough?’ he asked, looking around him in the bare room. Next to the mattress stood a stack of books – until yesterday the pile had contained both hers and his, mixed randomly. Now it was just his. Gorky. Dostoevsky. Chekhov. Camus. Tolstoy. Marx. Gandhi. On her first visit here, he had read out passages from War and Peace to her, and she had sat on the other edge of this very same mattress from him, with her chin on her knees, listening, shutting her eyes at all the right moments. ‘What is not enough, damn it?’ he said.
‘Not enough anything,’ she said following his glances around the walls, the floor, the TV cabinet with nothing on it. ‘This is not a house. A living room is meant to have furniture for people to sit on, not just a mattress. The bedroom – why call it a bedroom when there is no bed? Our kitchen does not have shelves. Our fridge does not work half the time. We don’t have enough anything, Shravan, and you know it.’
‘You mean we don’t have enough money.’
‘I don’t know how much money you have,’ she said, ‘but I certainly don’t have enough, and I intend to make a little of it.’
‘But I thought you liked it,’ said Shravan. ‘You told me that I inspire you.’
‘Yes, for a like a month! A struggling writer with unkempt hair and untidy habits is attractive – but I always thought it was a phase. I always thought that you wanted to become successful, and the failure was causing all the righteous anger. I thought you would make it one day, and once you did, we would look back at this time of struggle and smile.’
‘I do want to become successful,’ said Shravan. ‘But success doesn’t mean money, does it? We have always agreed that it doesn’t. You agreed with me!’
‘I did,’ she said, nodding and frowning, as if she were arguing with herself. ‘But this opportunity – it is one of a lifetime.’
‘Mahima,’ said Shravan, smiling, ‘you’re going to do personal portraits for film stars. Opportunity of a lifetime? Is this what you dreamed of becoming at J.J.?’
‘No. But you know, Shravan, I did not dream of becoming this either. At least there is money in what I am going to do.’ The muscles on her face, which had been straining all this while, suddenly relaxed, and she looked at him with kind, sorrowful eyes. ‘I don’t want much, Shravan. But I want something.’
‘It always starts with that, doesn’t it, Mahi?’ replied Shravan. ‘First you want a little. Then you want a little bit more. Then a little bit more.’
‘Maybe.’ Her face was back to being a veil of marble. ‘We’ll see.’
For some time there were no words between them. He extinguished his cigarette against the corner of the wall with care. He reached into his pocket for another, but found it empty. Mahima had worn her grey formal dress, with a skirt that ended just above her knees. She was going to go from the airport straight to Bandra, to an undisclosed location, where she would have her ‘interview’. The man she had spoken to had insisted that the job was hers, provided she could show that she wanted it. There was no problem with her talent, he had said, but the client needed to see the extent of her commitment.
‘What can I do?’ said Shravan.
‘What can I do? I will do anything.’
So it had come to this, he thought, immediately after saying the words. After all those nights of promising her that his vision was true and unwavering, that his path was hewn in stone, that nothing could swerve him from his chosen purpose of writing The Great Novel of the generation, here he was, sitting on his bum leaning back against the wall, not on his knees but almost, allowing her to see the extent of his commitment. Or was it desperation? Was there a difference?
‘No,’ she said, shaking her head.
‘Yes.’ He pushed himself off the wall into an erect posture. ‘I will do anything.’ You want me to take up an engineering job? I could dust off the old certificate, write up a CV in ten minutes, and before the week is out I will be bringing in the dough. You want me to start a business? You want me to swing by at Vinay’s ad agency and ask if they would like to use a copywriter? He won’t say no to me. You want me to fill this space between us with furniture, with a television, with a foam mattress not cotton? You want me to do all of the above? I will, as long as you promise not to leave.
‘No,’ she said again. ‘Ah, I hate myself.’ She left the suitcase and came to the edge of the mattress. She fell on her knees, rested her hands, palms down, on her thighs, creasing the ironed fabric of her dress. ‘This is not about you, Shravan. I changed. When we first met I thought this was what I wanted. Even today I want to want it all, as badly as you do.’ There was a clear light in her dark brown eyes, but Shravan knew they were not tears. He had never seen her cry, though it had been her air of sadness that had first attracted him to her. Even now she looked sad, but in an angry, sullen way; he had thought it spoke of her inner grit, an uncompromising desire to swat everything in her path. But now it felt a little shallow; if you could not cry when breaking a person’s heart, what did it make you?
‘I will do anything,’ he said.
‘No.’ She held up her hand, looked down at the square gold locket by his chest. ‘What is the point of that? I didn’t love the Shravan who will shower me with stuff.’
‘Then I will be the same,’ he said. ‘Stay back, and we will go back to what we had.’
‘But no, Shravan,’ she said. ‘I’ve come to a stage where love isn’t enough. I don’t know why I ever thought it would be, but I did, and now I don’t. And no amount of you doing anything will change that. Do you understand?’
‘There must be something I can do.’
‘There is,’ she said. ‘Just let me go. We will be friends, I promise. I will come visit every two months. You can come over once I’m settled in. We will hang out. I promise.’
‘Hang out?’ he said, spitting out a chuckle in disbelief. ‘Hang out? Do you think I don’t have enough friends to hang out here in Bangalore? I don’t need to come all the way to Mumbai to hang out with you.’
‘I won’t. Unbelievable.’
‘Don’t say that.’
‘Do you find any of this believable, Mahi?’ said Shravan. ‘After all those words that you will be with me throughout my life – we even spoke of marriage, damn it! Now I’m thinking I’m lucky that I’ve come to know your true nature now. If you’d decided to walk out after we got married –’
‘We didn’t speak of marriage, Shravan,’ she said quietly. ‘You did.’
‘We both did.’
‘You spoke,’ she said, ‘and I listened.’
Heavy breaths racked Shravan’s body, and his eyes widened in smouldering range. ‘You didn’t just listen. You said yes to everything!’
‘What else should I do?’ Her voice rose too, and Shravan heard a quiver in it. ‘You were building these palaces in the air for both of us. I didn’t have the heart to stop you – oh, Shravan, please!’
Tears had begun to flow down his cheeks. He wiped them off with two savage strokes of his hand. ‘No!’ he said. ‘How full of heart you are, Mahi. You did not have the heart to stop me from fantasizing, but you do have the heart to leave me here, in the middle of nowhere.’
‘It’s not that bad.’ She made to reach for him, but thought the better of it. ‘You had a life before me. You will go back to it. You might even write more, now that I won’t be around.’
Her phone beeped. She looked at the screen, tapped at the red button. ‘My cab is here.’
‘Please. Don’t make it harder.’
‘Why do you have to go? Give me one reason why you have to go.’
‘Shravan,’ she said, her face turning stern now. ‘We’ve been over this like a thousand times. We always come to the same point. We want different things in life. How is that?’
‘Any two people who love each other want different things in life. That’s not a good enough reason.’
‘We want drastically different things in life,’ she said, throwing up her arms. ‘You’re happy – with this! I’m not.’ She looked around the room, and for the first time Shravan saw disgust in Mahima’s eyes. ‘I want more – much more.’
‘I can give you much more!’ cried Shravan. ‘I can give you all that you want.’
‘I don’t want the things you give me in order to keep me,’ she said. ‘Don’t you understand that? I want to be with a person who gets me, who wants the same things as I do. That was you once. Not anymore.’
‘Is there anyone else?’
‘You heard me’ he said, narrowing his eyes at her. ‘Is there anyone else in Mumbai that you haven’t told me about?’
She wavered, just for a second.
‘Unbelievable,’ said Shravan.
‘No,’ she said, ‘it’s not like that.’
‘You said you were going to stay with a friend in Mumbai,’ said Shravan, now getting up on his feet, and moving closer to her. ‘Is this friend a male friend by any chance?’
Mahima backed away toward her suitcase. ‘My cab is here.’
‘I don’t have to answer you.’
‘So it’s a yes, then.’ Shravan ran a hand through his tousled hair. ‘I have been such a fool. I actually thought – ha – where did you meet him?’
‘Shravan,’ said Mahima, ‘it’s not like that. I am going to a new city. A friend has offered to help. That’s all.’
‘What’s his name?’
‘You need to calm down.’
Shravan pursed his lips together, both hands buried in his hair, and forced himself to take a slow breath. One. Two. Four.
‘I am calm,’ he said. ‘What’s his name?’
Mahima held the handle of her suitcase. ‘You don’t know him.’
‘What does he do?’
‘Why do you want to know?’
‘How much does he earn per month?’
Mahima closed her eyes, let out a breath. ‘I need to go.’
‘My cab is here.’
‘Cancel it. We’ll work it out. I promise.’
‘I have a flight that leaves in two hours.’
‘There is a flight that leaves every two hours from here to Mumbai,’ said Shravan, reaching out to hold Mahima by the wrist. ‘Stay for one night. Tomorrow, if you still want to go, I will drop you at the airport myself.’
Her grip on the suitcase handle only strengthened. She raised her wrist and twisted it out of his grasp. ‘Shravan, you’re beginning to sound like a creep.’
She took a few steps toward the main door. He followed her.
‘Please,’ he said. ‘I will be a mess without you.’
‘And I will be a mess without you,’ she said, to the door. At the touch of her hand the spring lock came open. ‘But this is the best for both of us. Trust me.’ She was putting on her shoes now. Her phone beeped again.
‘Haan bhaiya,’ she said to it, after touching the screen. ‘I will be down in five minutes.’
In a minute a sense of calm came over them both. The shoelaces were tied. The suitcase stood outside the door. She looked up at him, uncertainly, her arms half-rising.
He shook his head.
She gave him a nod. ‘Bye, Shravan,’ she said. ‘All the best with everything.’
He did not respond. His vision blurred again. He removed his glasses and pinched the inner corners of his eyes. When he put them back on, she was not to be seen. Somewhere out in the hallway, the elevator bells rang. The doors growled open, then shut.
He went to the main door, closed it, touched his forehead to it. He stood there with his fist raised. He said softly, ‘Bitch.’
When he came back to the mattress, he found that it still carried her smell. In a fit of anger he crumpled up the bed sheet and flung it at the corner. He would have to ask Durga to acid wash the apartment. To remove her taint from every nook, every edge.
For a long time he sat, leaning back against the wall, looking at the point she had stood that morning, with her hand on the suitcase handle. He saw her face soften, adopt a rapturous expression of awe, and he thought of her running to him with her arms outstretched. He was here too, of course, on his feet, picking her up and swirling her around. They were surrounded by sofas, a glass-top coffee table, and fifty-inch television.
He looked to his side, at the pile of books. He picked up the one on the top, a rather slim volume: Man’s Search For Meaning. He opened it to roughly the middle page, and tore it along the spine. Methodically, he proceeded to do the same with all the books in the stack. Camus. Gandhi. Marx. Tolstoy. Chekhov. Gorky. One after the other.
Again he sat, watching the tattered pages, the random paragraphs highlighted in fluorescent green. He would ask Durga to take them all to the waste paper man down the street, see if she could get him to give perhaps forty rupees in return. He would give her ten, keep thirty.
He was going to shave today. Yes, first, a shave. Then a haircut. Close cropped around the ears. Just enough on the scalp to achieve an old-fashioned side-part. He would shower. No, a bath. Shampoo for the hair. Soap for the body. He would scrub himself at least three times over. Get rid of all the stench. Then he would call Ma, tell her that she was to stop sending him money from next month.
But before that…
He reached for his phone. He found Vinay’s name, dialled it. As always, it rang three times before Vinay answered it. He had some kind of superstition about answering phone calls on the fourth ring.
‘Bolo bhai,’ he said. ‘Kaise yaad kiya?’
‘Vinay,’ said Shravan. ‘Wanted to ask for a favour.’
‘Tell me.’ Shravan heard low sounds of people speaking in the background. ‘Anything for you, bro.’
‘That lead copywriting job you said I could interview for if I was interested,’ said Shravan. ‘Is the position still available?’