SANDIPAN IYER AND NEELIMA SINGH got married in the July of 1975. They had met for the first time in January of that year, in the biochemistry lab of Bangalore Medical College. Sandipan had forgotten to bring a pen while Neelima carried two in her brown leather purse; Neelima did not know how to handle a pipette while Sandipan did. As a team, they worked their way through titrations to acid-base reductions. Somewhere along the way, they found each other at first amusing, then interesting, then attractive enough to have one-by-two filter coffee together at Shankar cafe three times a week.
It was at Shankar cafe that hot May afternoon that Sandipan proposed to Neelima. Well, he did not propose the way we understand the word. There were no flower bouquets. There definitely was no ring. After they had finished their coffee, into a lull in the conversation, he said, ‘So, this marriage thing. Do you want to give it a shot?’
They did the dutiful thing; each told of the other at home. Sandipan’s mother pretended not to have heard him the first four times, and when he persisted with the story of this girl from the ‘North’ who did not speak a word of Malayalam and preferred to have parathas instead of rice, she took a vow of silence that was to last three days. At the end of it, she spoke to Sandipan’s father about it, and they decided together that their answer would be no. Ratna, though, Sandipan’s sister, had just turned fifteen, and had just finished reading her latest Mills and Boons, so she saw the romantic side of it, and assured her brother secretly that she would do anything for his love to succeed.
Neelima’s two elder brothers and father laughed when she told them of Sandipan. She chose a time – half-way through dinner – when her family would be in the best possible mood. They thought she was joking. Neelima had spoken of how she would run away with this or that man in the past; she was not to be taken seriously. But when Neelima did not laugh with them, they looked at one another, and then all three of them looked up at Neelima’s mother. Mrs. Singh had already heard the tale from her daughter’s lips that evening, and she had warned that the men wouldn’t like to hear it. Wilting under her husband’s goading gaze, she said, ‘I will talk to her about it.’
Her eldest brother accompanied her to college the next day, just to see who this Sandipan fellow was. When he spotted him, he tapped him on the shoulder, took him aside, and told him nicely that his sister was not to be messed with.
At Sandipan’s house, before the week was out, they had begun to show him studio-shot pictures of nice Malayali girls in half-saris.
At their next coffee meeting at Shankar cafe, Neelima and Sandipan decided that it was time to take matters into their own hands. This was toward the end of June. They chalked out a two-week plan, and on the fifteenth of the next month, at ten in the morning, as the physiology lecture was about to begin at college, they met at the bull temple in Basavangudi. Neelima brought the garlands. Sandipan brought the vermillion and turmeric. Ratna stood witness.
* * *
The November of 1980 was unusually wet for Bangalore, spotted with heavy morning showers that left most days grey. On the fourth of this month, Neelima was told that the fibroids inside her uterine cavity were large enough to prevent her from ever becoming a mother. Like it is with all such prognoses, the doctor – a friend of theirs from medical school – left a small possibility to chance. ‘Keep trying and hope for the best,’ he told them, as they sat on the opposite side of the green-cloaked desk and watched the rounded shadows in the X-ray pinned to the lighted viewer. They didn’t need to be shown where to look. They were doctors too.
If relationships between their families had begun to thaw just a little, this piece of news ushered in another period of chill. In Sandipan’s house, they began to again show him pictures of women who ‘did not mind a married man’. In Neelima’s house they said the doctors were all wrong, that in any case of a couple unable to conceive, it had to be the fault of the man. And one look at Sandipan was enough to raise doubts, they said; so weak, as if he had been born old – never eats meat, the food of real men, and speaks as if he expected someone to interrupt him every moment.
In between all this, Neelima passed her gynaecology entrance and began her master’s studies. Sandipan failed his first attempt at cracking ophthalmology, and dove into his books for another try in six months.
Ratna finished her bachelor’s degree in commerce that year, and while her parents wanted to get her married, she came to Sandipan and asked whether it would be all right if she went to the U.S. for a programme in international business. Sandipan knew what she meant by ‘whether it would be all right’. She wanted to know if he could take care of the money.
He spoke to Neelima about it. She said yes without hesitation.
In March 1981, therefore, Ratna boarded the flight to New York from Mumbai. At the exact moment she turned around on the tarmac and waved to a viewing gallery (not because anyone had come to see her off; because she had heard it was the thing to do), Neelima, back in Bangalore, was trying her best to wave off repeated questions from a patient about why she was infertile. Sandipan was at home, preparing for a second attempt at the entrance.
In June 1981, they found that Sandipan had once again failed to qualify for an M.S., but had done enough to pursue a two-year diploma at the college that would allow him to later set up his own practice.
* * *
On the eighteenth of March, 1985, Sandipan and Neelima received news that Ratna was pregnant. With twins.
Neelima did not eat anything the whole day. The month before that they had moved into an eighth floor three-bedroom apartment in a complex called Temple Towers, and they had not yet finished picking out the right window curtains that would match the colour of the walls. When Sandipan returned at nine in the evening after a busy day at the outpatients ward in Eyecare Hospital, he found Neelima sitting in the middle of the living room three-seater, hugging a couch pillow and staring into nothing.
‘I am not hungry,’ she said before he asked her if she had eaten. ‘Everything is on the table.’
Sandipan had his dinner without fuss, finished his shower, carried the load of washing to the machine, and returned after forty five minutes. Neelima still sat the same way, showing no sign of having moved even an inch in the interim. He went and sat next to her. When he took her hand, she fell on his shoulder and began to sob.
Later, after they had put aside their respective books and the reading lights had been turned off, Neelima said, ‘Ratna and Satish are doing well, aren’t they?’
‘Maybe,’ said Sandipan. ‘I have not asked them.’
‘But he owns a business in Los Angeles. He is the manager of a law firm. She has been working for the last three years too, hasn’t she?’
‘Yes. They must be doing well.’ Sandipan allowed a pause to form between them in the silence. Then he said, ‘What if they are?’
When Neelima spoke, her voice held a distant iciness, the like of which Sandipan had not heard before. ‘When are you planning, then,’ she asked, ‘to tell her to return our money?’
Sandipan licked his lips in the dark, stared at the ceiling fan rotating on three. (He had wanted two, she had wanted four, they had settled half-way as a compromise.) He wanted to remind her that it was his sister that she was talking about, that they had never – not once – discussed that the money they had given Ratna was a loan. And it was not like they had need for money; the house was paid off, they had everything they had ever wanted that could be bought; on most months they didn’t know what to do with their overflowing bank accounts.
But this was not about any of that. Sandipan had seen the look on Neelima’s face when the news of the twins had come. She had smiled and said, ‘How nice,’ but through pale, shot eyes.
This was about that.
So he did the prudent thing and said, ‘I will talk to her tomorrow.’
* * *
On the first Sunday of August in 1990, Neelima sat Sandipan down on the bed, right after breakfast, and told him she had been having an affair.
‘You don’t have to know who he is,’ she said.
Sandipan let out a heavy breath through his thin lungs. ‘How long?’
‘Not very long. A month.’
‘Then it’s not really an affair, is it, Neelu?’
‘It is,’ she said. They sat on the edge of the bed, facing each other. She held his hand in both of hers. Her head was bent. Marks of dried tears littered all over swollen eyes. All this past month Neelu had complained of headaches. She had lost seven kilos, and her face had taken on a greenish look. Once or twice Sandipan had wondered out loud if she wished to get checked for jaundice, but she had waved him away.
‘Maybe a fling?’ he said, hopefully.
‘No. It was an affair.’
‘Do I know him?’
She looked up at him, her face devoid of all colour and flesh. The skin around her cheeks had a rough, papery look to them, as if they belonged on an eighty year old woman. Patchy lips. Wrinkles around the corners of the mouth.
‘I have been asking myself that same question for the last month,’ she said.
‘He broke up with me yesterday.’ Something of a smile appeared on her lips. ‘He asked me to come away with him, leave all this behind – and – and I told him I couldn’t.’
‘Did you cry when he left you?’
‘I did. So much.’
Sandipan raised his hand to her forehead, found it warm. In February of that year they had visited an adoption home and looked at a dozen infants. The lady who showed them over was telling them that it was advisable to choose an infant that matched their skin tone. To prevent uncomfortable questions too early in the child’s life, she had said.
‘If you want,’ said Sandipan, drawing Neelima into his arms, ‘we can try the adoption thing again.’
She rubbed her nose against the sleeve of his shirt. ‘No,’ she said, ‘all I want is you.’
That day, after they had returned with brochures and lists of names, Sandipan had asked for some time to think it all over. Neelu had said okay. But they had not spoken of it in the last six months. He had assumed she had forgotten; she had assumed he was no longer interested.
‘I am open to giving it a shot,’ he said.
She shook her head again. ‘No. Just promise me that you will never leave me.’
‘Never,’ he said, not knowing whether or not he meant it.
They sat for a while in each other’s arms, in silence.
* * *
In December 1995, the week after Ratna had left with the twins following their tenth birthday celebrations, Sandipan and Neelima first spoke of divorce.
‘I thought you said divorce was not an option,’ she told him.
‘That was when we were young, damn it!’ said Sandipan. He had been elevated to a superintendent’s post at Eyecare two years back, and the job was beginning to show on him, in the grey hair that appeared in his beard, in the way his shoulders slumped, in the saggy paunch that made him look like a bit of a pear. He had also lately realized that he was beginning to have trouble reading. ‘You’re not going to hold me to a promise made when we were eighteen, are you?’
‘Okay,’ she said, calmly, ‘which promises do you want me to hold you to, then? How about the one you made five years ago, that you would never leave me?’
‘Forget about all promises!’ He got to his feet and tore the glittery purple decorations off the wall. ‘All I am saying is we need to think about it, that’s all.’
‘Just because I think your sister should pay us back the money we loaned her?’
‘We didn’t loan her the money. We gave it to her.’
‘But it was not just your money to give, Sandipan,’ said Neelima. ‘If you remember, you were not earning anything back then. Much of the money Ratna took with her was mine.’
‘We’re married,’ said Sandipan. ‘There is no yours or mine.’
‘Fine,’ said Neelima, adjusting the bridge of her spectacles. ‘Then she must know that she is to return our money. With interest.’
‘I cannot keep having the same fight again and again, Neelu. I told you once and I will tell you again. I do not ask family members for money.’
‘Okay,’ said Neelima. ‘I will not bring it up again.’
‘But that is not the only reason,’ said Sandipan. ‘We don’t live the same life anymore.’
Neelima smiled up at Sandipan. ‘We have not lived the same life for years now. Why do you think we should?’
‘We are a married couple!’ he said, throwing up his arms. ‘We don’t go to the movies. We don’t go out on walks. We don’t talk. Why, there was a time when we used to discuss our work. We don’t even do that now. We just eat quietly, watch TV quietly, read quietly… is this what you signed up for?’
‘I don’t know what I signed up for, honestly,’ said Neelima, ‘but all that you said can be –’ she stopped, and inclined her head, frowning. ‘Sandipan, is there someone else?’
Her frown deepened. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes.’ He rubbed his beard, and thrust out his waist with a hand on his hip. ‘Who has the time for such shenanigans?’
‘Indeed,’ said Neelima. ‘But if there is someone, you will tell me, won’t you? Like I did?’
He looked away, through the window, out into the night. ‘Yes,’ he murmured.
A look of faint realization dawned over Neelima. She took off her glasses and cleaned them with the tip of her chudidaar. ‘You know,’ she said, ‘I have been meaning to take a break from work…’
* * *
On the twelfth of October, 2000, on the occasion of Dusshera celebrations at Temple Towers, they gave Neelima and Sandipan a prize for being the coolest couple in the society. When asked on stage what their secret was, Neelima grinned at the microphone and said, ‘We don’t have children!’
The questions came thick and fast after that from the crowd.
‘We see you walk around the park every day, hand in hand. How do you make time for each other, Mrs. Iyer?’
‘Just watching you look at each other is enough to see that you’re still in love. How did you manage to keep the spark alive all these years?’
‘Do you ever fight, Mrs. Iyer?’
‘Does your husband ever sweep you off your feet, Mrs. Iyer?’
‘Tell us about your first date.’
Later that evening, while entertaining guests at the house, Sandipan entered the house to rapturous applause, and with a shamefaced smile, he posed with the trophy in one arm and Neelima on the other. He leaned close to whisper, ‘What the hell is going on?’
‘They gave us an award,’ she said through teeth still smiling for the camera.
They made them sit in the middle of the room, on the floor. Eight or nine couples, all of them in their twenties, surrounded them and asked them one or the other variant of all the questions she had answered earlier that evening. Now she left the floor to Sandipan while taking his coat and stethoscope away.
She went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, one ear picking up words in the living room.
‘Yes,’ she heard Sandipan’s voice, ‘the credit for that goes entirely to my wife. She picks out the things, I just nod and agree with her.’ Laughter from the men.
‘She is a highly trained gynaecologist. So it’s not true that she’s just a housewife.’
‘Time – yes. We decided that one of us had to stay at home to create that time. With our schedules, if we were both working –’
‘Well, money – money is not everything –’
‘Advice for young people? Oh, hah! What advice did Neelima give you? I would like to basically agree with whatever she said.’
She came out of the kitchen stirring a steaming cup. She made her way into the middle of the circle and sat next to Sandipan. ‘Now,’ she said to everyone, ‘it’s time for Mr. Iyer to spend some quality time with Mrs. Iyer. And it’s time for all of you guys to go back to your respective houses. Off! Shoo!’
The room emptied in a medley of grumbles. After the front door had closed on the last of them, Neelima turned the lock and let out a sigh. She kicked off her heels, went to the couch, fell into it. She watched Sandipan take small sips of tea, and press his lips together making slurping noises. He watched her too. For a while they stayed quiet, as if they were hearing themselves breathe.
Then Neelima said, smiling, ‘Hi.’
* * *
They celebrated Sandipan’s fiftieth in 2005. A small affair. Ratna came bearing a one-kilogram red velvet cake. After the solitary candle had been extinguished, they sat with a small piece each in their hands. They were all diabetic, Ratna hypertensive to boot. She leaned close to Neelima, and cupping her hand over her lips, whispered that she had just hit menopause.
Neelima broke into laughter that would not stop for a minute. Then she said, ‘I am still getting mine.’
As if that were the last straw, she got up, strode purposefully toward the cake, and cut out for herself a slice as large as her hand.
The twins had not come. They were on their gap year, Ratna had said, snorkelling in Fiji or backpacking through Europe or some such. Satish had not come; he had the restaurant to run on weekends, while juggling being vice president of the law firm. Or was it partner? Neelima realized she did not care.
As she finished her cake, a slimy part of her wanted to ask Ratna how long she had been ‘on pause’ for. Menopause came now, that was fine, but with Satish’s twenty-five hour days, when was the last time they had – you know – but she decided it would be too mean.
If this were twenty years ago, she thought, I would have done it. But now? With all of them greying and senility beckoning? What was the point?
Ratna left that night at about eleven, just as Sandipan was beginning to nod off. At the door, she turned and inclined her head.
‘What?’ said Neelima.
‘I have something to give you,’ said Ratna, and reached into her handbag. ‘You know, Neelu, I thought we were good enough friends that you would ask if you wanted something from me.’
She held out a cheque. Neelima would later look back on the moment and wish she had had the grace to turn it down. She took it and glanced at the figure. It was large enough to cover the principal and the interest. A couple of times over.
‘Does Satish know you’re giving this to me?’ she asked.
‘He does,’ said Ratna. ‘It was he who insisted.’
Neelima wanted to ask what had taken them this long to grow a conscience. Do you know how many fights you could have saved us, she asked Ratna in her mind, if only you had thought to be so considerate twenty years ago? But what did one say to a family member in such times? One just accepted what was given with the right mix of gratitude and poise.
On the way back into the living room with the cheque, she found herself growing angry with each step, because now, this one gesture had wiped out all legitimate reasons for her to hate Ratna. Now all that remained were the shameful ones.
‘Did you tell Ratna to pay us back today?’ she asked, looking up from the cheque to where Sandipan was sitting.
Sandipan did not answer. His eyes were closed. But something about the way he was slumped to one side awakened a long-dead doctor’s instinct in Neelima. She hurried over to him, checked his pulse. ‘Shit,’ she said. ‘Shit!’
* * *
Sandipan Iyer had his second heart attack on September the sixteenth, 2010. He arrived at the hospital dead. He was fifty five.
Neelima listened without listening to the doctor’s pronouncement. Ratna was there, holding her. Somewhere at the head of the aisle, Satish stood with his phone held to the ear, on an international call. Of course. He had to run a restaurant. The twins sat on the bench, huddled next to each other like sloths, each bent over a phone.
‘Will you be okay?’ Ratna was saying. ‘Do you have enough money?’
Neelima watched them wheel Sandipan out of the ward toward the morgue. Someone referred to him as ‘the body’. That shouldn’t have shocked her – she herself had used the word so many times in practice – but it did. The body.
‘Yes,’ she said, nodding on Ratna’s shoulder. ‘I will be fine.’
Though she did not know how. She had enough money. Money was not the problem.
They dropped her at the apartment on their way back. Ratna was kind enough to ask if she should stay back. Neelima told her not to be silly.
She walked around the compound of Temple Towers, retracing the path they had used every day all these years. She bent down to touch the grass. She took deep breaths of the late evening air. At the entrance to her block, a small gathering of people greeted her with messages of condolences and sorrow. Neelima knew all of them by name, but now she just stared at them blankly, groping within her memory and finding nothing. Some of them rode the elevator up to her apartment, stayed with her until her eyes grew heavy with sleep. She did not remember to eat.
When she woke up the next morning, she smiled at the ceiling fan, and took a minute to realize that last night had not been a dream. For a while she buried her head in her hands and tried to weep, but the tears would not come. She asked herself how she was going to live, why she needed to live. And the answer came back with such speed and promptness that it gladdened her.
She didn’t need to live. She didn’t even need to ‘take care of things’, as Sandipan used to say. No need for insurance. Estate planning. Will. Nothing. No fear that people would fight over her remains. At some point someone – Ratna, perhaps – would have to come by and see what was where and what needed to be done, but it was not her problem. There was nothing she wanted to give away to anyone, now that Sandipan was gone. For the first time in her life, she felt happy that they had not had children. Could she have been so free to grieve for Sandipan otherwise? She tried to imagine the scene right now with children, one of them married, one of them not, a daughter-in-law who was shedding tears of duty, a grandchild, perhaps, who needed to be fed – and they would all have different things on their mind.
Here she was alone, in mind, in body, in spirit – how freeing it was.
She got off the bed and went to the medicine cabinet. She did not have to search for long to find the bottle of sleeping tablets that Sandipan had been using for the last few years. She shook it, heard the rattle. Sounded like there were at least twenty. Ten should do it for a full grown person. She would add five more for safety. Then she shook her head and thought: why not empty the damned thing? It was not like she had to leave some for someone else.
She carried the bottle to the kitchen. She emptied the tablets onto her palm. With her free hand she opened the tap on the R.O. machine, with an empty glass under it.
She watched it fill with water.