Creepers and Grapevines
by Ranvir Singh Parmar
She made a comment on the gait of a waiter. I laughed, flinging my head backwards and placing one hand over the mouth to conceal the tobacco stains. The flash of that moment when my hands lifted off the table, as my head traveled back — my eyes skimmed the surface of the side mirror, and as quietly a moth accepts its death in a flame, registered something in my memory.
I didn’t immediately try to verify what I saw — the thing was too disturbing. I tried to act normal. Performing the first act of normality I bent forward to listen to another of her jokes. But I could not manage to laugh this time.
It embarrassed her as she raised her hand for a hi-five, laughing uncontrollably, whereas I kept staring into my soup bowl. I brought my face close to the bowl. The steam rose and pinched my nose. It covered my face, enveloped my cheeks and nose, and allowed me to steal another glance at the mirror.
There was no mistake — it was Sanskriti, my wife, standing next to a huge money plant, adorning her usual frangipani bead in her amla nourished hair. The leaves of the plant had unfurled themselves to a point they appeared ridiculously large. Its branches drooped under the weight of their overgrown kids and were held upright with ropes that appeared out of colour for this place.
The waiters and management roamed around in slick haircuts and sharp suits thinking they were professional blokes with an unparalleled sensitivity for aesthetics. None of these idiots had noticed that the plants that were put to give this place only a tang of nature had so overgrown, sending their branches spiraling all over the place, competing for space with the lamps and furniture, that their dense structures could be exploited by suspicious wives who could hide behind the unkempt leaves and spy on their husbands.
But the reality was Sanskriti made no real attempt at concealment; she knew what she had discovered. It appeared she was on her way to her table when she had noticed me. The order slip still shone in her fingers. She looked fixedly towards my table, waiting to catch my glance, waiting for the confrontation when she would walk to my table and create a scene.
I looked up from the bowl and noticed Shilpa still had her hand raised. She waved it in front of my face and adamantly demanded the hi-five. ‘Hi-five,’ she said in a stupid way, and loudly. ‘I need it.’
I wished I could tell her it wasn’t the right moment and the right place. If Sanskriti saw me making this clap she would turn this whole place upside down; the soup in our bowls was still hot and Sanskriti would not think twice before spilling it over our faces. ‘Hi-five...you ought to clap my hand,’ Shilpa said. ‘Sorry, just in case you don’t know.’
I raised my hand and gave her the bloody hi-five. ‘Happy?’ I asked.
Shilpa shook her head, then to my horror she stuck out her finger and tapped it on her lips — once, twice, colours rushed back and forth in them — pink, white, magenta, pale white, and finally a flush of pink settled over the area, matching exactly the colour of her nail-paint, partially the colour of my bleeding heart. ‘Here?’ I asked. ‘You must be out of your mind.’
She bent over the table, allowing her breasts to clear the path for her. The culinary was pushed to its limits on the table; plates and bowls moved to the side to allow the lady a comfortable passage, but letting out a noise that even if Sanskriti had already walked away considering my presence was nothing but an illusion, she would once again turn back to look at us. Before I could understand what Shilpa was up to, she left a kiss on my cheek.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘You won’t die of shame... I won’t, at least.’
I smiled and served myself a spoonful of dal-makhani. There was still some chance I could project it as an official lunch. There was a blank paper in my pocket and I could pull it out and draw a flower on it for Shilpa. She would definitely be interested and would peer at the drawing. Sanskriti could be fooled to think I was taking down some quotations; the clap and the kiss could be later explained as gestures of appreciation for my expertise at jotting down client requirements. The spoon shivered in my hands with indecision, spilling the dal, and returning it back to the bowl with a plop-plop sound.
Shilpa looked at my hand and asked, ‘So I guess it worked, did it?’
Another mistake. Shilpa once again bent forward. The waiters froze in their tracks ignoring the outstretched hands of the customers eager to grab their meals; some trays staging strawberry shakes and nimbupanis suffered the jerk, spilling the drinks over the rims of the glasses. Ladies held the pallu of their saris to their mouths, and men just shook their heads as if it was the end of the world, and Sanskriti?
Something flickered in the corner of my eyes. Sanskriti had crumpled her order slip. There was a loud cracking noise as if it was not a paper slip but a beetle she was holding. She flung the paper towards us. It just fell short of touching Shilpa’s shoulder. I ignored it and Shilpa didn’t notice the projectile, like she never noticed my stomach that now drooped over the buckle of my belt, and ascertained from it that I was a married man. How could she never have guessed I had a wife, and at this very moment she was standing not too far away, fingering her frangipani bead, ready to pull it out and choke our throats with its string?
Shilpa floated her face towards mine. Her eyes were closed; her mouth opened to swallow my lips in. Her lips instantly got down to work — beginning with their tentative exploration of the area and proceeding to swallow my lower lip, and gradually my whole mouth.
My tongue cringed back in my throat, but from somewhere her tongue slithered inside my mouth, no permission sought, brushing past the tobacco teeth, painting the area in saliva with the recklessness of some mad painter who has no control over her brush.
Next began a long grueling tussle with my reluctant tongue as it slowly gave way and imitated the other without knowing what exactly both wished to attain in the end. There were shrieks of children from all around as the parents pressed their hands over their eyes. Some hapless waiters could no longer keep an eye over the angle of the trays they were holding, and ended up smashing the glasses on the floor; a hush spread over the place as if one kiss had let out a spell, and had changed this place once proud of its thick leaves into a graveyard infested with dead souls and creepers.
* * *
I returned to a dark house. The grapevine that stretched over the length of our house was discernible when the wind got under its leaves and lifted them to the moonlight. The night creeper lay stretched over the parapet, coiled amongst the cable television wires, and stained head to foot with the dung of several generations of larks and pigeons visiting it. Today it gave out a strong scent unlike any other day. Perhaps it had never before confronted such darkness, and it was its very first chance to flourish in such a blind world, open its secret buds holding magical scents without the fear of being noticed. The air rejoiced in the treat of this rich perfume; it seemed not only had the creeper found the shadows it always sought, but today it was being garlanded with a gloom that Sanskriti had carried back with her to the house from the restaurant.
My first guess was our street had a blackout, but then I looked around and noticed how the light spilled out of the windows of the adjacent houses. Dim, colored bulbs kept a drowsy watch over the porches of most houses; the alternative patterns of red and green made it seem like the whole neighborhood rejoiced in some clandestine ceremony, and my house was deliberately excluded from it.
Even the streetlights burned with an exceptional glow tonight, as if the electricity saved from my house was being channeled into keeping them cheerful. They flaunted tiny armies of moths that celebrated the occasion with a maddening frenzy, plucking at some invisible proteins that rained down from the light, and in the process getting drowned in the whirlpools of their own devise.
I wasn’t sure if it was the fuse, or Sanskriti had deliberately switched off all the lights as a gesture to moan the imminent end of our married life. I felt an urge to get back into the car and drive away. It didn’t matter where as long as I could avoid confronting Sanskriti, shun all the explanations she would demand for my betrayal.
She would revert back to the melodrama performed by wives for centuries whenever they discovered their husbands in the arms of other women. She would beat her forehead with her palms, break her glass bangles against the dining table, and stamp over their wreckage until her bangles would reduce to a fine powder — devoid of any colour and thick with her blood.
The sight of them would take her rage to new heights. She would sketch our life as a set of sections in a true-false test and would insist to know what particular sections she had missed — in the bed or inside the kitchen, under my body or atop it, or did I betray her because she hummed the same song all the time while cleaning dishes.
She would ask about Shilpa’s whereabouts so she could kill the bitch who stole her husband. I wanted to avoid such scenes. They were supplied in abundance by Bollywood. Moreover, I loved my mosaic tiles and would do anything to prevent them from getting stabbed with the sharp edges of her bangles. And what about the pots, paintings, my Kishore and Lata collection, Narayan’s Malgudi, and the expensive mangalsutra she would hurl at me through these proceedings?
There was a chemist around the corner that sold rat poison, a lake full of lilies not too far away to die in, and if I passed that, too, I would soon hit the Kalka road that would take me to the mountains of Kausoli, in the embrace of the scent of frangipanis and mogra flowers that bloomed all across those valleys. There was this special bunch of mountain gods that, the legend goes, loved human beings as much they loved pigeons and rhesus monkeys and would swap one for the other if a member of a species requests it.
I would never return to the plains. I might change myself into a monkey with those gods’ help and dance my life on the branches, live on food thrown out of the windows of the cars, and pinch my nose whenever the scent of any feline sex — monkey or human — would poison the air with ecstasy.
I flicked on some switches and smacked on the switchboard but the house remained dead. Sanskriti hadn’t lit a single candle. All the windows were closed and the curtains drawn to prevent the moon and the street lamps from peering in. I drew one of the curtains away and found an owl staring inside from the window, as if it knew the curtain would fall. I restored the curtain.
Somewhere the water dripped. The ghostly settings of the house stirred something in my memory. It resembled something ghastly — a fairy-tale from my childhood? A lullaby with an eerie tinge? Stories slipped into one’s subconscious by the dead as one slept?
Then the tap began to run. It was as if some fingers had just turned it on. And as the first wave of its jet splashed over the full bucket, and sloshed over its sides, the story I was trying to summon arrived loud and clear, and along with it its raconteur — Sanskriti.
She had told it to me only once, ten years back, just a few days before our marriage. It pained her to recall the events of that night, and several times she broke down while reciting what she had gone through. ‘I was so small,’ she had pleaded. ‘I didn’t deserve that.’
I had consoled her by taking her in my arms, wrapping my arm around her waist, and occasionally rubbing her thighs, more out of lust than affection. Several times I interrupted and asked her to bury the past, not to recall an old horrible tale even for the sake of her would-be husband.
But Sanskriti was adamant. ‘How can I?’ she asked. ‘She was my elder sister. You can’t even imagine how much we loved each other. She was my part and now you are my part and you have to know about her, about that night, otherwise you will never know me.’
To be continued...
Copyright © 2007 by Ranvir Singh Parmar