Saturday, July 26, 2014

DNA-Out of Print Short Fiction: HEMA RAMAN

All Alone Together
Hema Raman

Another day and not a word out of my lips. I run my tongue all over the inside of my mouth, feeling the grooves and the smoothness. I open and close it but no sound escapes. My caged voice box croaks in protest whenever my only visitor, the delivery boy, arrives. Embarrassed, I have resorted to sign language with him. I give my orders for the next week in strips of paper. He faithfully delivers the items along with the bill and the crumpled damp paper strip, pitying the dumb lady in the big house. I have long ceased to care what others think of me.

I settle down for my mid-morning nap on the sofa with the tv on the travel channel. Within a matter of minutes my husband wakes me, his fingers continuing to drum on my arm long after I sit up.

‘I am hungry,’ he says. I shrug him off like a petulant mother. I want to hide for a while in a place where he can’t find me. Some days, he eats every hour, finishing off what I had made for the entire day in a matter of minutes, shovelling it rapidly into his mouth.

On good days, he closes the door and leaves me alone for a few hours.

While I serve him food he signals for more and more, until the rice spoon scrapes the bottom of the vessel sharply. He stops with his spoon in mid-air, our eyes meet and I feel a spark of something familiar. He gets up and leaves before I can say anything.

Later, I hear him fill water for his bath when he has already finished two baths. I step into his room wanting to call out but don’t. Sometimes I make him so angry that he resorts to breaking things. On the bed is his diary. I flip it open. Here and there on the pages are half formed alphabets strewn around looking lost. As if he had wanted to put them together but they had turned hostile and refused to co-operate. I hear the bathroom door shut and turn around. He stands naked. His grey chest hair is a tangled mess as his stomach sags heavily below his down turned nipples. He is sixty but his face looks much younger.

He smiles. I smile hesitantly at first and then wider, glad that we are sharing something. He steps forward and still smiling, snatches the diary away in one swift stroke. His sharp nails scratch my dry skin making me suck my breath in. His stranger’s eyes become mere slits though his lips are curved up.

I run away. For the first time I am scared of him. Avoiding the neglected brownish grey patch that was once a lawn, I stand under the rain tree that is waiting for sunset in order to fall asleep. I rented a beach house as I assumed that the sea would be a soothing distraction, but the house is too large. Now everything around me is dusty and dead or dying. With my right big toe I write our names together without any space, merging the As – Adithyanitadithyanita. Then I strike it out with a big ‘X’. I trace my toe on it again and again. My sandy digit moves in fluid motion, smoothing the sharp edges of the alphabet. However, nothing can blunt the fact that we can never be together like we were before.

Adithya’s hippocampus is on strike. Visits to the doctor only ensured tests of humiliation. I cannot fathom that an organ named hippocampus, that tiny purple thing, can be entrusted with so much responsibility in the brain. A hippocampus just brings images of chubby hippos going to school.

It was then, right there in the doctor’s office, that I made the decision to move back to India. I had been scared that in America they would take him away from me under the pretext that it was best for all. Here, we no longer have anyone who cares enough.

Back in my room, I look at my furrowed forehead and pursed lips in the full-length mirror and bend to pick up an unused red lipstick. I draw the outline of my reflection on the mirror and move sideways to observe the red ghost face devoid of all expression. I uncoil my waist length hair that falls like a black cascade suddenly let loose. I am fifty but there is not a single grey in it, a lucky genetic trait that no longer makes a difference. I brush the strands, divide and bunch them with clips, before picking up the scissors. The steady sound of the blades as they sever each bunch from the roots does not stop until all of my hair lies tangled on the ground.

Moving to the bathroom, I soap my scalp, pick up the razor and shave in steady strokes before stepping into the shower. The cold water sloughs all that lingers. I walk back to the room and with my index finger wipe away the outline of the hair that I had drawn, leaving a smudge of red on my finger. I rub it on my smooth head and think of the shaving as a kind of reverse penance to do something about the situation I am in. Already, I feel light-headed, different.

The door of Adithya’s room is wide open. It is empty and smells musty from being closed all the time. Clothes from the cupboard are heaped in mounds on the bed as if he was searching for something. Then I see that his formal grey suit is missing. The only suit that we had brought along for this trip. I cannot imagine why I packed it but I had, just like I had taken a silk sari for myself. Wistful silliness.

Had he seen me shaving my hair? Sometimes he lurks outside the bathroom window. A wretched anxiety takes root in the pit of my stomach after I check the rest of the house and the garden. He has not once stepped out of the gate in the two months we have been here. I hurry to the terrace to locate him. The late afternoon sun burns my freshly shaved head and I cover it with my scarf, knotting it securely under my chin.

I can see his familiar stooped figure on the beach. There is no one else in this isolated stretch of sand. But my relief is short lived as I see him move steadily towards the water, taking measured steps as if he had practised earlier.

His footsteps sink into the wet sand, making deep troughs that are filled in by the waves, before being slowly wiped clean, leaving no trace of him. The brisk wind plasters the suit onto him as the rough waves of the choppy sea thrash his legs. I worry, thinking of the wind, filled with fine sand, blurring his eyes. Soon it will be sunset and the tide will rise, wetting parched sands further up the beach. Even now the water line on the sand is rising.

Instead of going to him, I watch, spellbound, as the water licks his ankles. The waves recede and his feet are buried in sand. The next wave, he bends to pick up something dark from the water. Someone’s lost rubber slipper. He throws it back into the sea.

He shuffles forward, freeing his feet from the sand holding him back.

I sit on the floor and cover my face, hoping to escape into the hidden folds of my warm memory blanket, from my part in what is unfolding in front of me. I rotate and ration my memories in a way that I do not revisit any too often and periodically sort through a suitcase full of old photographs, hoping to remember something new.

I remember thirty-year old Adithya from America coming to see me. I was the prospective bride. His handsome and cheerful persona had bowled over everyone. In between all those people, he gave me a glossy paper with jagged edges that looked like it had been hurriedly torn off a magazine.

‘This is from a women’s magazine that I saw after coming back to India. Please read it … if you don’t mind.’

The elders looked on. His father a bit stern. My parents wanting to please, but at the same time anxious that their daughter would have to go so far away if accepted. Other relatives, curious at what was written on the paper, waited to pounce. I blushed and looked down to read with all eyes upon me.

Wanted Bride. Wanted coy, presentable, educated, caring woman with communication and household skills, having city home (no re-location). Long hair, thick lips, clean teeth, expressive face, sweet voice, lapped neck, divergent-fat-arms with invisible veins, long mani/ pedicured fingers, tiered flanks, wide seat for no bar 33, fair, 168 cm, MBA, transferable central government officer.

I was giggling. Divergent-fat-arms with invisible veins, pedicured fingers, wide seat for no bar 33! I burst out laughing, amidst surprised relatives and others, who probably thought this was some serious test to check my vision or my English reading skills. I just could not stop laughing. Adithya too joined in. Then, he took the paper, winked and put it into his pocket, as if it was our private joke amongst the entire crowd there. Later, he confessed that he had fallen for that spontaneous burst of laughter from me. I loved his sense of humour.

Through the holes in the parapet wall I can see the water and, if I bend a little, Adithya. Knee deep, he stands still. A fat man with his hands held high above his head. The tide advances, greedily reclaiming all it can. A sudden wave makes him stumble and I panic, but at the same time reassure myself that swimming is an instinctive skill. Adithya is a strong swimmer.

His coat and pant pockets sag. My legs are leaden. All I feel is a wrenching weariness. He struggles to stay upright but falls with his hands still up. He is dragged in by the water but is up again, waist deep against the waves, refusing to swim. He is drowning. It is those stupid hands of his. Always up like that, instead of pushing the water away. Maybe something really heavy is weighing him down. He must have planned in his rare moments of clarity.

I stand up, undo my scarf and let the wind carry it. It falls on the beach and dances away, until it is just a speck and then no more.

His right hand disappears and then reappears making a slow arc twice.

I wait until night, walking up and down the terrace. I could have chosen to call for help but I loved him enough to let him drown. My eyes are dry and a strange calm takes over as I smile and climb the low-lying parapet wall. I stand straight under the half moon, hands stretching into the night towards the sea and let my voice out to whisper to the wind that now caresses me, ‘Darling, let us be one again.’

Hema S Raman is an award winning writer. Her novel Fear the Hero was shortlisted for the inaugural Tibor Jones South Asia Pre-publication Prize. The first chapter and synopsis of the novel were commended by The Literary Consultancy in the contest held during the 2008 Jaipur Literary Festival. Her stories have won the regional prize (Asia) in 2007 Commonwealth Broadcasting Association short story contest, first prize in 2010 Katha India Currents short story contest, first prize in 2010 Sampad-British Council international writing contest and first prize in 2011 Indian Women’s Press Corps short story contest. Her stories have also been published in several anthologies and magazines. She is a British Council certified creative writing trainer.

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