Karthika took the thali up to her face and touched each eye with it. It was her way of showing reverence to the symbol of her marriage. To her husband.
It was her mother-in-law’s Puja, where every year a group of married women got together and prayed for their husband’s lives. They held out their thalis to be anointed with the sacred red kumkum. Praying that they would never have to remove their thalis until the day they die. It was a blessed boon to die as a still married woman. Not as a widow.
Karthika was one confused woman. She was twenty eight, convent educated, had a master’s degree in computer engineering. She had traveled to three countries and worked with Americans and Europeans. But in her heart she was still the small town girl from Thanjavur. It was an identity crisis she couldn’t cope with. She knew that the thali and the sentiments that her mother, mother-in-law and grandmother thrust on her was just a blind ancient tradition, fuelled further by endless Tamil movies.
Her husband’s life and future did not depend on the appendage hanging on the heavy rope shaped gold chain on her neck. Her brain told her that, but her small town heart said something else. Why anger the Gods? So she wore it and treated it with the expected amount of respect. Sometimes she wished that she could trade it for a lighter more delicate model. Like the black bead mangalsutras the North Indians wore. She had suggested it once, but her mother-in-law had been scandalized. This was her family’s pride and self respect that hung on her neck. Not something that could be compromised.
Her mother-in-law always made it a point to mention that they had given her a thali chain that weighed eleven sovereigns. Eighty eight grams. She conveniently never mentioned the hundred sovereigns of gold that Karthika’s father had decked his daughter in. Or even the ten odd sovereigns that were gifted to the groom, her husband Ram. Bracelets and “Minor” chains that, thankfully, he never wore.
The moment the marriage broker had shown Ram’s profile to her father, he had decided that Ram should become his son- in- law. A post graduate from AnnaUniversity, only son, no bad habits, earning over a lakh a month, own flat in Chennai and a lot of land in the outskirts. Ram was every father’s dream for his daughter. Most importantly their horoscopes had matched perfectly.
What more could a retired railway employee ask for. He had immediately given his consent to the alliance and withdrawn his entire life’s savings from the Post Office deposits for the wedding expenses. It did not even occur to him to ask Karthika for her consent. But anyway, Karthika wouldn’t have dared to say no even if he had asked her.
She went through the lavish wedding as she was expected to and dutifully slipped into wedded life with no hiccups. All her jewellery had been put back into the safety locker immediately after the wedding. Only the eleven sovereign thali chain and two bangles remained on her. It was almost three years now, and she had forgotten what her jewellery looked like.
Over the first year of her marriage they had kept adding to her thali. The thali itself was typical to her community. A one inch long odd shaped piece of gold with two protruding peaks. Supposed to signify something divine, but she felt it looked more like a frog with protruding eyes. There were some gold beads added after three months, then some gold tubes. Then a couple of black beads. It kept getting heavier and heavier, weighing her down. But each addition increased her husband’s life. She accepted dutifully.
Even when she went to the US for three months she was not allowed to remove it. She wore it hidden deep inside shirts as she travelled to work every day. One daring moment in an office party she had unbuttoned an extra button on her shirt, hoping to expose a bit of cleavage like her American counterparts. But to her ill luck, it was the thali that popped out unexpectedly and was noticed rather than her breasts. She spent the rest of the evening showing it to admiring Americans who were fascinated by the whole concept of the thali, and more so by the concept of supposedly “For the Rest of your Life”. Something totally alien in a land of speed dating and speedier divorces.
The chain chaffed the skin at the back of her neck in the hot Chennai summers. The thali created a small black scar just below her breasts where it constantly rubbed against her sensitive skin. There were moments when she was tempted to remove it. But something deep inside her knew that she could never forgive herself if anything happened to Ram if she did remove it. Sometimes she wanted to pull it off and hurl it into the ocean, fantasizing at the thought of her thali creating a fault in the ocean floor and causing a tsunami centuries later, like the idol in the movie Dasavatharam.
Once she wondered what would happen if she got into a swimming pool wearing nothing but the chain. Maybe she would sink like a stone?
But otherwise, she silently wore it. Never complaining. Ball and chain around her neck. To be relieved only in death.
Ram himself had been a bitter disappointment. She had grown up on a good dose of Hindi and Tamil movies. She expected him to sweep her off her feet with small romances and surprises. She expected a honeymoon at least in Ooty if not in Switzerland. But instead they had gone to a temple in Kumbakonam. With his entire family in tow.
She sometimes wished he would sneak up behind her in the kitchen and squeeze her waist naughtily, knowing well that his mother was watching TV in the next room. She longed for jasmine flowers placed on the pillow some night, a subtle suggestion of what lay ahead. A suggestive email or SMS in the middle of work, surprise trips to Mahabalipuram and long walks on the golden sands.
But that was not Ram. He was a good husband. A great provider. A supportive man. He was well read and well traveled. But that was it. There were times when she even wondered whether he was normal. He had no friends, (and therefore no bad habits according to her father), no hobbies, nothing. He was a workaholic, which again was a good thing according to her father. He watched cricket matches, but only because he felt he had to keep track of statistics. He watched movies, but only because he could critically analyse the lighting and angles and find faults in the direction. He watched the news on every channel each night for an “In depth analysis”. He read almost every newspaper in circulation. That was all there was to him.
They had gone to the doctor some time ago since she had not conceived even after two years of marriage. The doctor did all the tests and had told them that nothing was wrong with both of them and they should keep trying. Karthika tried to make the situation lighter, “Sure Doctor,” she had said “At least the “trying” part is fun”.
The doctor had laughed heartily and agreed. But Ram sat there with his face set like stone, shocked at his wife’s words. Not something that a “Family girl” would say openly. He drove back home in a hurt silence, while Karthika looked out of the window trying hard not to giggle recollecting his stunned expression.
On the whole he was a bore. A good man, but a big bore.
He frustrated her with his timetables. He never had his breakfast before eight o’clock or after nine o’clock in the morning. Many Sundays when her in-laws were out of town, they had bitter arguments over breakfast served after ten. He woke up at five o’clock every morning to do his yoga while she stayed in bed enjoying the last lazy moments stretching luxuriously, fantasizing about the imaginary surprises in store for her that day.
He even had a fixed time for making love. No sex before ten pm was the unwritten rule.
It was like an imaginary lock he had installed on the bedroom door. Swipe in before ten pm, and the lock would beep loudly, red lights blinking wildly. Access denied.
And when the Love was actually Made, it was as process oriented as his projects. Done with perfect textbook precision, error free, time bound. Within the budget. She could sometimes even sense the status updates he kept giving himself every minute. Five minutes more to go for project delivery. Now four minutes. Three.
Actually, doctor, the trying is not fun
And then, three months ago her life had changed. Vinod had joined her project as a senior manager. He was a tall cheerful man, full of life. He had a great sense of humour and was a great conversationalist. He even joked about his divorce during lunch with the team once.
“I was George Bush and she was Bin Lady” he said with a booming laugh, “it was doomed from the beginning.”
He took everything with such ease that even deadlines became something to look forward to after his arrival. He made small jokes during status meetings and crazy faces during con-calls with foreign clients. The entire team loved him. But for Karthika, it was something much deeper. In Vinod she began to see all that she wanted to see in Ram. Her feelings did not go unnoticed.
Vinod too began to find himself drawn to her. There were a lot of unsaid words hanging in the glass walled conference rooms long after they had discussed the project status. There were a lot of unnecessary daily updates that they gave each other sitting across the table, gazing into each others eyes. She began to feel his presence even before she saw him enter the room. She sometimes felt a delicious shiver run through her body, only to look up and catch him staring at her with brimming desire from across the hall. The air around them kept getting thick with a fog of sexual energy, and she found herself getting drawn deeper and deeper, closer to him inside that fog.
It was the celebration of their project delivery that Friday. They had abandoned their workstations and taken off to a beach resort. While the rest of the team rejoiced in the liquor that had begun to flow by five pm and beach cricket, Karthika and Vinod sat on the sand, looking aimlessly into the horizon. The silence between them spoke everything they wanted to say to each other. His hand slowly crept across the sand and reached out to hers. She immediately sensed it and withdrew her hand even before their fingers touched.
Darkness slowly began to set it. Dinner was served. Everyone chattered animatedly over the banquet forgetting office pressures. Karthika and Vinod spoke to everyone else, but between themselves the only words that passed were through their eyes.
The team packed themselves into the four cars for their return trip. Karthika went straight and sat in Vinod’s car. She knew that Venkat would be driving past her house, so before he suggested that she get into his car she went into Vinod’s car and closed the door. Three others got into the back seat. Everyone had exhausted their words and it was music that filled the car on the way back. After they had dropped off the others, it was just the two of them in the car. The silence continued.
He stopped in front of a building. “This is where I live”, he said, breaking the silence at last. “Do you want to come in for a cup of coffee?” It was ten pm. She could hear her heart beat bouncing off the car doors loudly.
Her heart cried out
She took a deep breath.
“No”. It came out as a whisper.
He didn’t say a word. He dropped her in front of her apartment and waited till she got inside, then drove away.
The next day she woke up with a terrible headache at 8 o’clock in the morning. Ram looked at her accusingly, when she gave him his coffee at 8.30. The neglected husband. He always had it at 7 am. His parents had already left for Tirupati early in the morning.
Karthika looked at the clock, and decided to finish breakfast before 9 to avoid another accusing stare.
She tried hard to blank out the events of the previous day as she made the dosas. She sang loudly with the radio and tried hard to concentrate on what the blabbering DJs were saying. But the same words kept echoing in her mind all the time.
“Do you want to come in for a cup of coffee?”
The afternoon was hot and sultry. It looked like it was going to rain. Ram was sitting on the sofa reading the news paper like he was giving an exam on the news the next day. She went up and sat next to him. She picked up the remote and surfed through some random channels. The clouds outside were becoming dark and menacing. She stopped at a music channel. It was a hot song sequence. The heroine was dripping wet in a black saree, worn precariously low over her hips and seducing a reluctant hero.
Karthika pulled up her feet on the sofa, snuggled closer to Ram and looked up into his eyes. He lay down the news paper, looked at the TV screen. He said nothing, he just smiled. He took the remote from her hand and went back two channels. BBC News.
Access card swiped before ten pm. Access denied.
She got up in a huff, visibly upset and angry and went to the bedroom. Blindly she changed her clothes. She picked out a light blue chiffon saree. Draped it carelessly, clipped her hair up in a barrette and grabbed her handbag.
“I’m going to the beauty parlour”, she said and rushed out of the door angrily. He said nothing; he got up to close the door. It was only after she got into the auto rickshaw and heard herself saying, “Anna Nagar” that she herself realized where she was headed.
It was not to the beauty parlour.
The auto rickshaw stopped in front of the now familiar building from the previous night. She picked up her phone and dialed.
“What is your apartment number?” she asked brusquely.
“C45”, he answered, confused.
She hung up before he could say anything else.
A few minutes later, she stood outside C45. There was no hesitation when she rang the doorbell. Vinod opened the door, a look of total surprise in his eyes. She pushed him and walked past into the living room with fierce determination.
“I have come for that cup of coffee you offered yesterday”
He stared at her for a moment and his face broke out into a grin. He looked like a happy schoolboy who had just been selected for the football team.
He turned and went into the kitchen.
She stared behind him, a bit confused, as he walked away.” Coffee? Really?” she thought to herself.
She looked around and entered his bedroom. She stood in front of the mirror.
She removed the barrette and let her hair fall to her shoulders, and ran her fingers through her silky tresses. She turned around and studied herself.
”Not too bad” she thought.
That moment, he entered with two cups of coffee. He placed the cups on the dressing table and looked at her. Without a word, he opened his arms. Happily, she rushed in, leaving the coffee to grow cold.
He kissed her hungrily, wetting her face like an eager puppy. His hands moved all over her body, not knowing where to begin. He gently laid her on the bed and lay down beside her. She sank into the pillow, trying to bypass all the thoughts that came rushing into her mind at full speed, all at once, competing for priority.
He removed her saree pallu, fumbling with the pin, poking into her shoulder as he removed it. He looked at her breasts in the light blue blouse and he buried his face between them. She had never felt this sort of a heady feeling in her life before. She sank deeper and deeper into the moment, eagerly awaiting the ecstasy to follow. She felt a sudden throbbing between her legs. She remembered the woman from the porn movie she had once watched secretly. She transformed herself into the porn star. She grabbed his head with a savage energy, running her fingers through his hair, pushing him deeper into her chest. Suddenly the throbbing became more urgent; she wanted his wet kisses there. With the same savage force, she pushed his head downwards.
The next moment she was thrown forward and he screamed with pain.
There is no other way to recreate the last few seconds except through an action replay.
In slow motion.
Rewind…….. naip hitw demaercs eh……….
He was enjoying the excess and surplus at his own pace, panting heavily, dribbling all over her, when the porn star took over. As she grabbed his head and pushed it downwards, his open mouth had gotten caught on her thali. Caught between the savage sexual monster pushing him downwards and the eighty eight grams of gold rope pulling him upwards, his upper lip got fish hooked in the gold appendages that hung between her breasts and tore, dripping blood all over the blue chiffon pallu spread across the bed like a fan.
She stood up in horror and instinctively grabbed her thali, rubbing the back of her neck where the impact had grazed her. There was a bright red glob of blood on the very peaks where auspicious kumkum of the same colour had adorned it the previous week. She grabbed her pallu and wiped it off quickly.
She stared for a moment at the figure in front of her, hair disheveled standing up like two horns on either side of his head, bare chested blue jeans unzipped, holding the bloodied bed sheet to his bleeding lip, face distorted in pain.
What began as a small giggle slowly evolved into a loud hysterical laughter as she ran out of the bedroom, out into the hallway, into the street. Into the pouring rain.
It was only when she sat down in an auto rickshaw, still laughing, that she realized that there were tears running down her cheeks.
Whether they were tears of laughter, tears of sorrow, tears of relief or tears of realization. She couldn’t tell.