I RECOGNIZED THE WOMAN only a minute after she had passed us. Both she and the man with her had smiled and given me a half-nod, with the uncertain friendliness strangers reserved for one another in this park, and for what it was worth, I gave them one of my awkward grins too, so we all played the game to type. I don’t like you in my space, each of us seemed to be saying, but I am going to be nice and civil about it. I am cultured, see?
Mrinalini, in my arms, put out one hand, twisted it around, and said, ‘Bayee?’ as they passed. I heard the woman chuckle and say something to her husband, in a voice so soft that I could not catch the words. The sentence ended in a question, though. It might have been, ‘Cute child, isn’t she?’ And the man said, ‘Mm hmm,’ in that indulgent tone of long-time husbands.
But that whispery tenor, that hint of laughter that hung about her words, that splash of white skin that covered her left cheek – I stopped mid-stride next to the rough bark of a gum-oozing tree, and allowed Mrinu to place her palm against it. I looked over my shoulder to make sure. She now wore her hair short, and it had greyed in all these years, and her hips did not have the jaunty sway of old, but it was her. There was no doubt.
A bolt of shame coursed through me, and I found myself looking around at the other parents and kids playing in the park. I was the lone father there; definitely the only father in blue track pants and a fluorescent green sleeveless vest. I had become used to the mothers not making eye contact with me while we allowed the kids to socialize – but today, I read meaning in each avoided glance, in each turning away of the face, in each occasion of lips flattening politely.
‘Bayee?’ said Mrinu, and pointed at the park’s exit gate. It was getting to be half-past-six, and mosquitoes the size of small bees were beginning to swarm about us. Deepika had sprayed her with an organic insect repellent, but I could tell that it was not working. Mrinu had sensitive skin, the kind that reddened and swelled at the smallest bite. The sky was beginning to grey (the colour of her hair, a small voice told me). We had to leave before it got darker.
The park’s walking track was built as a paved circular path around trees and lawns. I saw that the old couple were turning the curve behind us. I thought I should take my chance.
‘We will take one more round, Mrinu?’ I said.
She said, ‘Bayee.’ I took it to mean consent.
I quickened my pace around the periphery of the track, and slowed down when the couple returned to my field of vision. There was enough light for all of us to make out one another’s features. I did not look at the man at all; he meant nothing to me. I’d not ever seen him. I kept my eyes fixed on her, and with each step, as they neared me, it seemed as if she were peeling off the years. The hair grew blacker and longer, long enough to reach her waist in wavy-straight lines. The patch of withered skin became whiter, fresher. Her skin began to glow with the buttery yellow of old. The sway of the hips became just a bit more pronounced.
She gave Mrinu a smile, and began to nod at her again in the same careless manner of her husband, but she stopped, and a small frown appeared on her brow. The eyes came to rest on me this time. A twitch racked her good cheek, which she smoothed with a clearing of the throat. But her eyes had changed. It was as if they had been lit from the inside. For the shortest moment that look about her persisted, but it was gone in an instant, swept aside with a practiced motion of the facial muscles. I stopped in front of them to buy one more minute, and held Mrinu by the hand and waved it.
‘Say hi,’ I said to her.
The husband laughed. So did she. But there seemed to be more life in her laughter this time. ‘What is her name?’ she said.
I did not know if she meant the girl in my arms or the woman I’d left behind in the house, who was now waiting for me to return.
‘Mrinalini,’ I said, guessing at the former.
‘Such a nice name.’
‘Say thank you.’ I waved Mrinu’s arm.
Mrinu shook her head. She had begun to do that whenever we showed her food that she did not want to eat.
‘Ha-ha,’ said the husband. ‘She does not like us.’ He waved at Mrinu as they passed us. ‘Bye,’ he said.
‘Cute, isn’t she?’ she said, falling in step with him. Watching her walk away, I realized that I was getting angry, that a part of me wanted to run after her and wrench her around by the wrist to face me, and look into those soulless grey eyes, and – and what?
Soulless grey eyes? I had once thought them the most beautiful in the world.
I took a few steps down, firming my grip on Mrinu as she turned around in my arms to catch a better glimpse of some kids playing in the lawn. With my free hand I waved away eager mosquitoes. One of them bit me on the elbow; I scratched myself and scraped the skin with the corner of my fingernail.
When we reached the entrance gate, I stole another glance at them. I caught her raising her head and looking in my direction as they turned the curve in the track. I asked myself if I should take one more round. But something told me this was not a one-off meeting; something akin to a message had travelled from her eyes to mine when they had met. I would run into her again. I knew.
So I left the park and began to walk back home. It was only after I caught the road leading up to my street that I discovered two things: one, that I was not sure if I wanted to meet her again, and two, that my heart was beating as if I’d been running all day.
* * *
I dreamt of her that night, for the first time in eighteen years.
By the time I awoke, at the stroke of dawn to the azaan of the mosque adjoining our house, I remembered almost nothing of what I had seen, but I felt the warmth of her bloused bosom against my cheek, the red heat that had risen in my face that instant; I heard her call out my name in the middle of class and ask if I knew the answer to some question concerning the valves of the human heart; I heard myself say, ‘No, Teacher’; and I heard her praise my frankness to the rest of the class. Someone seated in the row in front of me – it might have been Amar, I was not certain – snickered, and at the recess they teased me that Sunita Teacher was in love with me.
All voices. Carried by grey shades from the past. The old school building stood on swirling wisps of smoke.
That evening, I took Mrinu to the park at the same time as the previous day. On the way there, while she extended her arms to touch hanging leaves from trees in our path, I chided myself for the hope that was building in my heart. What made me sure that she would come? I felt like a man sneaking out on an assignation, except that this was not. I had nothing but a vague shard of instinct, that maybe there had been some deeper meaning to that moment in which her glance had held mine.
As we crossed the road Mrinu threw her head back and looked at the sky. She said, ‘Birdie.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Birdie.’ Two eagles were gliding in circles around each other above us.
We reached the place where we’d met them the day before. I set Mrinu down on the paved track, and while she tested her feet and contemplated whether to take the first step with her right foot or the left, I looked around to spot Sunita Teacher. I saw the usual mothers who gave me tentative smiles as they passed, some of them pushing prams, others speaking to their children in low, warning tones, pulling them away from thorns and dirt.
But I did not see her or her husband. When Deepika had asked me with a raised eyebrow why I had wanted to come to the park later than usual that day, I had given her some story about the sun being too harsh. The lies that turn out to be unnecessary prick the conscience the most. I thought I’d pick up a glass of sugarcane juice on the way back for Deepi as penance.
I swept the expanse of the park one more time, just to be sure that she wasn’t there. Then I gave Mrinu my index finger and guided her toward a fallen yellow flower a few feet ahead of us.
* * *
I woke up angry the next day. The moulvi who sang the azaan had never had the voice to carry a melody, but I’d never felt the urge that I did that morning, to knock on his door and have a stern word. At the sink, when I splashed cold water on my face and looked up at the mirror, the whites of my eyes were riddled with red veins. On the bed, Mrinu stirred and broke into a half-hearted cry. Deepika awoke, patted her on the back, breathed soft whispers into her ear.
As she smiled back into sleep, I looked back into the mirror and found an old, haggard face looking back. On the surface there was no reason for this rage. I had slept early. I had slept well. But I had not dreamed of her. It felt a little like being stood up on a date.
That evening, I went back to my normal walking time, and like the previous day, after putting Mrinu down on the pavement with a squeak of her shoes, I straightened myself out and took a minute to scan the park. She was there, perched upon the edge of one of the corner benches.
I tried not to let my excitement show, and I could see that she had spotted me too. But she neither waved nor smiled. I gathered Mrinu in my arms and walked over to where she was sitting.
Mrinu said, ‘Bayee?’
I stood with my knee touching the cool concrete edge of the bench. Her hair had a silvery lustre to it. She looked straight ahead with square eyes, as if I were not there. ‘Good evening, Teacher,’ I said, and wondered if I should fold my arms. I had the last time we had spoken to one another, and if one were to ask that younger version of me, he would reply that yes, of course, a student never grew so old as to feel shame in folding arms in front of his teacher. But now, it felt so strange, this idea that one adult should bow to another, to show respect that no longer – perhaps never – existed.
She nodded at my greeting, curtly, just with the neck.
‘What’s her name?’ she said.
I began to repeat my answer of the first day, but the severity in her face made me think that she did not mean Mrinu. I cleared my throat. ‘Deepika,’ I said.
‘You can sit,’ she said. ‘We’re no longer at school.’
I murmured something to Mrinu, whose attention had been caught by a flitting butterfly. I sat at the opposite edge from Sunita Teacher, my hands trapped between my thighs. If she were to extend her arm and if I were to do the same, we would still not touch each other. ‘I don’t know why I am here,’ I said.
She laughed, and at once that took me back to that night before the field trip in tenth class, where she had taken me by the hand behind the school building, by the girls’ toilets. Pitch dark. A heavy November chill in the air. The only warmth came from her grip on my wrist. And later – after we had found a quiet spot behind the toilets, on top of the covered septic tank – from her lips leaving kisses on my face. And each time I shuddered, she would laugh. Just the same way.
‘Make that two of us,’ she said. ‘I sent my husband away with a long grocery list.’ Her eyes seemed to be fixed on Mrinu, but they looked far beyond her, into some grim image of the past. ‘He knows of you, of course.’
‘You are the he who shall not be named in our house.’ She looked at me, smiled in a sad way. ‘We still have a fight about you every few months. It starts with something small, something totally unrelated. There is an extra dish in the sink, say. He comes and starts talking to me in this slow, patient way – as if I were a child, or I am retarded. He reminds me of my father.’
‘He saw me the other day,’ I said. ‘He spoke civilly enough.’
‘He doesn’t know that it was you,’ she said. ‘It’s been what – twenty years?’
‘Eighteen years. Eighteen years and seven months.’
‘Hell, even I did not recognize you until you passed the second time.’ A look of pride came to her face, and her lips tightened. ‘Are you happily married?’
She nodded. Something of a deep breath escaped her. ‘I was – you know – hoping that – she looks like you.’ She nodded at Mrinu, who was now trying to pick up a twig that was too thin for her fingers. ‘When I first saw her, I told myself that I had seen the face somewhere. And then I had it.’
‘It took me two years to get over you,’ I said. I had not played this conversation over in my head before; I had not known that I’d be given the opportunity, so I did not quite know how to approach it. But the last thing I thought I’d do was to admit how broken she had left me. ‘I failed tenth that year.’
‘Yes,’ she said. She held her hands entwined on her lap, and her left leg crossed over the right. This was how she had sat on that afternoon in the staff room, when I had gone to give her the first of my letters. What had I said in it? Dear Sunita Teacher. I think you are very beautiful. I love you. Something like that. There was a poem in it too, somewhere. ‘The world doesn’t understand love of our kind.’
‘We were not in love,’ I said, returning the triumphant smile Mrinu flashed at me while holding up a mud-coated stone she had found. ‘You abused me.’
‘Did you think it was abuse before they told you it was?’
I thought about that, about the letter she had written to me in response to that first one, how she had concealed it in one of my homework books, telling me that I was a handsome, good young man, that I would make a girl of my own age happy one day, that it was natural yet wrong of me to mistake the affection of a teacher for love. You’re growing into a man, she had said, but I am not the woman for you.
She had not expressly forbidden me from writing to her again, though. And she had sprayed her perfume on the piece of paper, just enough of it for me to get the hint.
‘It was you who seduced me,’ she said. ‘I resisted, but that second letter – do you know I still have them with me? Every one of the nine you wrote. I read them sometimes, and I feel that it would be nice to go back to the school, you know?’ She fixed me with a stern gaze, but her eyes changed, into these voluble, stricken orbs. ‘Why could you not be one of the teachers? I keep asking myself that. If only you were one of the teachers – any of them!’
‘I was expelled from school because of you,’ I told her, because it seemed from her words that she had forgotten. ‘I failed the following year because I was still not over you.’
‘And I had the worst two years of my marriage in that time,’ she said, holding my gaze with strength that made me waver. ‘We saw a counsellor. I told Ramesh the truth. He deserved to know.’
‘What did you tell him?’ I wanted to ask: How much did you tell him?
‘Everything,’ she said. ‘Where we used to meet, what we used to do. What we used to talk about. We talked about quite a few things, didn’t we?’
‘I don’t remember,’ I lied. How could I not? There were promises of her getting a divorce, of going away together to some unknown village and starting a new life there, of taking care of one another, of fighting against the world that insisted on vilifying us for finding each other. How much of it had come from her and how much from me? I did not know. But there had been a bit of talking, yes, besides all the things we did.
‘You did not even know how to kiss when we first started,’ she said, with laughter in her voice. ‘But you were quite good by the end of term. Did your future girlfriends like that about you?’
‘What did your husband say when you told him about us?’
She sighed; it was the sigh of a woman used to carrying a weight on her shoulders. ‘There was a lot of yelling.’ Once again her eyes bored into the past. From the corner of my eye I watched Mrinu; she was tapping at the pavement with her foot. ‘He said I was a bitch for having seduced you. He reminded me that you were young enough to be my son. He said what everyone else who knew the truth said: that I abused you.’
‘Well? You did.’
‘I ask you the same question again,’ she said. ‘Did you think the same before someone else told you what it was?’
She ended all her messages the same way: burn this letter. She promised that she had been doing the same with his. This has to stay our little secret until the time is right, she would say, because the world is not ready for a relationship like ours. And she would say that each letter of mine should be unique, and none of them should allude to any of the previous ones. Every love letter of yours must have the same freshness. Every time you serenade me, do it as if you were doing it for the very first time.
Later, in Father Raja’s office, when the both of us stood on either side of his desk while he read out the contents of my tenth letter to Sunita Teacher loud enough to be heard half-way down the corridor, I said what she had been telling me all that year. I told him that she loved me too, that she had written me letters too.
‘Where are they?’ he had asked.
‘I burnt them,’ I had said. ‘She told me to.’
‘I don’t know what this boy is talking about, Father,’ she had said, reaching into her handbag and producing a rubber-banded bundle of everything I’d written her. ‘Look at all the things he had been writing to me. I have met him multiple times, told him to stop it, but he just wouldn’t listen.’
A rustle of the evening breeze brought me back to the park bench. These memories should make me angry, I told myself, and yet I found that I felt nothing, as if I were someone else, a fourth person, invisible, in that dingy principal’s office.
‘I could not own up to it, you know,’ she said, as if she had been hearing my thoughts. ‘I needed that job. The time was not right for us. If it had been two years later – just two years later – and I would have come with you. Wherever you wanted. Just like we spoke.’
I got off the bench and went to pick up Mrinu. She laughed in my arms and looked up at the sky again, though there was no birdie. Then she rested her cheek on my shoulder and began to babble. Whenever she paused I said ‘hmm’ and ‘is that so?’ as appropriate. Sunita Teacher sat like a statue and watched us.
I walked back to her and said that I should get going.
‘Me too,’ she said, preparing to stand up. Then she stopped, as if struck by a thought. ‘Ramesh is leaving on a business trip tonight. Why don’t you come by for a visit tomorrow?’
‘All three of us?’ I said.
She got to her feet, flicked her top of imaginary dust. Then she raised her hand to my cheek. I did not flinch. ‘I’d like it to be just you,’ she said.
We stayed in that moment longer than we should have.
Then I stepped back. And turned and walked away.
* * *
‘I was hoping you would come,’ she said, after we took our seats in her living room. A full-food-chain aquarium covered one of the walls. An algae pump was droning softly in the corner, driving bubbles up to the surface. The last time I had been in a house with Sunita Teacher was eighteen years ago; back then the aquarium was smaller, more of a fish bowl with two goldfish in it. She had told me that they were in love too, like me and her. Then she had taken me to the bedroom.
‘Ramesh likes fish,’ she said, stirring a silver spoon in a tea cup. ‘Sugar?’
‘Yes, please. Two spoons.’
‘I admit a part of me thought you would not come. You really did seem to be happy in your marriage.’
‘Then why are you here? Do you think I invited you to just have tea?’
There was a glint in her eye, a glint of certainty that she still held me in her thrall. It was true, she did. I had dreamed again of her the previous night, of old happenings set in the here and now. Her teaching me to kiss in the kitchen of my current apartment. Her asking me to rub her back in the bathroom. Her pinning me to the bed that I shared with Mrinu and Deepika.
‘I – I don’t know why I came here,’ I said, taking the cup that she held out to me. I took a sip, found it agreeable. ‘What if your husband came to know?’
‘It wouldn’t kill him,’ she said. ‘Do you think I don’t know what he gets up to on his business trips? It is unfair, isn’t it, how a man just seems to grow in attractiveness as he ages? Women fall for him all the time – brainless bimbos, all of them.’
‘What would it do to your marriage?’
‘It can’t make it any worse.’ Her face changed and changed back, as if she were speaking to herself. ‘But how will he come to know anyway?’
‘What if I told him?’
Something like fear made her sit upright, off the backrest of the couch, near the edge. ‘Why would you?’
‘Because I want to take revenge?’ I said, taking another sip. ‘Because of you I lost two years of my life. My mother developed tuberculosis. My father and I remain distant to this day. We were not always like this.’
‘Do you not remember?’ she said. ‘You seduced me.’
I nodded. ‘Yes, I remember. I do remember. But yesterday, it was you who invited me home.’
‘Can you prove it?’
‘Here we are, aren’t we?’ I looked around me. ‘If you didn’t let me in, how are we sitting here, having tea?’
‘You tracked me down, knocked on my door,’ she said, her voice now cool. Calm. Squeezed dry of all emotion. ‘We are acquaintances at the park. I invited you in out of courtesy.’
‘I see,’ I said. ‘Is your life really that miserable, Teacher?’
She did not reply immediately. Once or twice she began to say something and caught herself. Then she shook her head, withdrew her lips. I took a larger gulp of the tea and watched her. The fish chased one another in the tank.
When the words came, they came in a flood. She told me everything – the affairs, the fights, the scars, the broken cutlery, the cracked vases, the autistic daughter who had died four years ago at the ripe old age of twenty six, the years of discontent that had led up to her receiving my first letter, the years of discontent that had followed after, the drinking, the counselling, back to the drinking – and before I knew it I was shedding a tear too. For her and for Ramesh, this man that did not know me but hated me all the same for sleeping with his wife. For the dead girl. For the two goldfish in that old bowl.
And for me. Mostly for me.
After all that she said had left her a broken shell, slumped like a drunk, I went over to sit by her side. I gave her a hug. Kissed her on the forehead. Then on both the eyes. Held her chin. Told her she was beautiful. The way she looked at me, I could tell it had been a while since she heard it last. She leaned in for a kiss, but I shook my head, and she averred. I patted her cheek instead, ran my fingers through her hair, the way she taught me all those years ago.
Before the rest of them came and called it abuse, she had asked me, did you not think it was love?
I watched the fish as she rested her head on my shoulder. Her breathing became more regular. The shadows gathered around us. I sat there until she fell asleep, thinking of Mrinu and Deepika. Then I got up, laid her down on her side with the hand hanging out. I touched the fingers one last time. They did not respond.
I let myself out, as quietly as I could.