One morning, Venkatesh decided to wear his wife's salwar-kurta.
One moment saw him sitting on the sofa, reading the newspaper, and the next moment, he was standing in front of his wife's cupboard, fingering her clothes.
A purple set caught his eye, the colour of the smoky blossoms of the jacaranda across the road. He took out the salwar, kurta and dupatta from the almirah and laid them out on the bed, one next to another. The dupatta was particularly pretty, like the carpet the purple flowers made on the ground before the morning traffic crushed them into the tarmac.
Venkatesh took off his t-shirt and dhoti. He picked up the salwar first, and put it on. This was like his drawstring pyjamas, except that it was of a soft material that tickled his thighs. Then he slipped the kurta over his head and looked at his own reflection in the full-length mirror on the almirah. It was longer than his khadi kurta. This kurta's neck was round and large. His clavicle stuck out. And the dress hung loose on him as if from a coat hanger. He frowned before he remembered. Of course, he had no breasts. He picked up the dupatta and held it in front of him like he had seen his wife do, and threw either end over each shoulder. The middle bunched up over his chest, and he was satisfied. The lack of breasts wasn't so obvious now. But his chest hair was visible, and he pulled the neckline upwards, and had a flash of memory of his wife doing the same thing when she thought her cleavage was showing.
He went back to the living room, sat on the sofa and reached for the newspaper. The dupatta slipped off his shoulder. He adjusted it and tried to read. But the material of the dress distracted him. It was soft and smooth and he rubbed it between his thumb and forefinger. He stroked his own thigh, and noticed how bony it was compared to his wife's.
His fingers found a pink flower on the kurta, and he ran them over it, following the lines of the thread and seeing for the first time the delicate and intricate work that went into embroidery. He got up and went to the mirror again, and turned this way and that, admiring the dress, and himself in it. He felt at home in it. No tightness at the crotch. The sleeves didn't dig into his armpits. And the fall of the dupatta was particularly seductive.
Venkatesh toasted bread and scrambled some eggs for breakfast, and made himself a cup of coffee. The dupatta kept slipping off, and so he took it off and hung it on the kitchen towel stand while he cooked. He ate breakfast looking at his reflection in the glass door of the microwave oven.
An hour passed, and Venkatesh looked at his watch and grimaced. It was time for him to leave for his in-laws' place for the obligatory Sunday lunch. His wife would be there for two more months, until the baby turned six months old, and then she would come back home. Until then, he would have to go every week to see his wife and son. Otherwise, eyebrows would be raised. People would ask why the son-in-law didn't come to see his family. So he would have to go, and hold his child. He would have to grin and bear the gushes and the comments about how much the baby looked like the father. And he would have to tolerate the excessive obsequiousness and feeding from his parents-in-law.
Venkatesh went to the bedroom to change. He chose a clean, ironed shirt and a pair of trousers, and laid them out on the bed. He stared at them for a while, and then put them back into the almirah. It made no sense to him, changing out of those comfortable clothes.
He picked up his wallet and the keys of his bike, and automatically felt for a pocket in the kurta. There was none. He opened his wife's almirah again and found a handbag. He put the wallet and key into the handbag, and just because there was more space in it, he put in a handkerchief too.
As he bent to put on his shoes, he saw how incongruous they looked with the salwar-kurta, and considered wearing his sandals. They were marginally better, but since he had already gone this far ... he chose a pair of his wife's open-toed sandals and squeezed his feet into them. His toes touched the floor in the front, but he didn't mind. They felt right.
Venkatesh walked out of the house, slightly self-conscious, and he half-wished, half-feared that somebody would see him. But there was nobody around. He hung the handbag on the bike handle and put the helmet on his head. He straddled the motorbike, started it, and cruised out of the gate.
The roads were comparatively empty. The wind caught the dupatta, and it fluttered behind him in the wind. He laughed loudly, wildly. What a glorious feeling! He surged forward, the wind ruffling his loose clothes, the dupatta like Superman's cape.
As he parked the motorbike outside the gate of his in-laws' home, he felt the first twinge of hesitation. But only for a moment.
He went in and remembered to knock at the door and not ring the bell, in case the baby was sleeping. There was a bustle inside in response to his knock, voices raised in expectation. He adjusted his dupatta, and straightened his shoulders.
His mother-in-law opened the door with a smile, and then immediately, her jaw dropped. She stepped aside without a word, and Venkatesh entered. His father-in-law had been in the process of getting up from the sofa, and he froze, his bottom poised a few inches above the seat. But his old legs couldn't balance him for long in that position and he plonked back on the sofa.
Venkatesh sat down nonchalantly on the single-seater sofa that was his by unsaid understanding whenever he was visiting. He placed the handbag on the side table next to him, and adjusted his dupatta as he sat, so that he wouldn't sit on it.
His wife came out of a room, all smiles. She looked at him and gave a start, as if somebody had jumped out from a corner and said ‘boo’. She gave a thin laugh, and made a questioning gesture with her hands. When she saw no mirth on Venkatesh's face, she froze, her face registering puzzlement, shock and then finally, understanding.
She backed into the room, and came out clutching the baby to her bosom, as if Venkatesh were a monster and she was protecting the baby from him. As if everything was a dream, and she needed to hold her baby to assure herself that he, at least, was real. As if she knew that things would never be the same again, and she needed the support of her baby to withstand the change.
There was no conversation. Just a vague babbling by his in-laws, and hesitant questions about what the joke was.
Was it a prank? A dare? His father-in-law offered Venkatesh his own clothes to change into. But Venkatesh ignored him.
Then his wife found her voice. ‘Please change,’ she said, a steeliness in her voice that Venkatesh didn't know existed. ‘Please change, now.’
‘No,’ said Venkatesh.
‘Change, right now,’ she repeated, but Venkatesh shook his head. ‘If this is the welcome I get,’ he said, ‘I'm leaving.’
‘You're not going out like that again,’ said his wife, her voice hardly audible.
Venkatesh stood up, and made as if to leave. His father-in-law blocked his path, muttering soothing appeasements, touching his forehead as if checking for his temperature, but Venkatesh brushed him aside.
‘If my own wife doesn't understand my wish to wear comfortable clothes, then I can't hope for anything else,’ he said.
‘Your pyjama-kurta is as comfortable,’ said his wife, her chest heaving, barely able to speak. ‘Why women's clothes?’
‘If women can wear men's clothes, why not the other way round?’
‘Oh God, he's gone crazy!’ She sank into a chair.
Venkatesh didn't answer. He went to the door, and paused. His heart was bursting. With fear, with excitement, with exhilaration, with the knowledge of the enormity of the moment. If he turned and admitted to a moment of craziness, and blamed the heat for it, the three people in the room would forgive him immediately and the matter wouldn't be mentioned ever again. And life would go back to normal.
But if he stepped out, he would be venturing into the unknown. He would be leaving behind life as he knew it.
His wife sensed his hesitation. She made a move towards him, held the child out to him, as if to remind him of the stakes.
But Venkatesh knew that he couldn't go back now. He didn't know what compelled him to do this in the first place, but the moment he stepped out of his home dressed in his wife's clothes, the wheels had been set in motion. He was now a part of something greater than him, something he didn't quite understand, something inevitable. It didn't seem like he had a choice any more.
Venkatesh opened the door, and stepped out.
Shruthi Rao is a writer of short fiction and non-fiction. A post-graduate in Energy Engineering, she worked in the IT industry for a few years. During a break that she took from work to care for her child, she discovered that all she wanted to do was write. She quit her job, and hasn't looked back since.
Several of her stories have won awards (Sunday Herald Short Story Award (twice), Unisun-Reliance TimeOut fiction for children contest, Tagore-O’Henry short story contest.) An award-winning children’s story was converted into a picture book, The Story Lady, by Unisun Publications. Her stories have been published or are forthcoming in Open Road Review, Earthen Lamp Journal, Papercuts and eFiction India, and have been included in print and online anthologies such as Helter Skelter New Writing, Two is Company and Across the Ages. Her articles on travel, education, lifestyle and parenting have appeared in Mint Lounge, Deccan Herald, The Hindu, Complete Wellbeing and Women’s Web. She is also involved in developing content for children's books, and translates from Kannada to English.
Shruthi lives in Bangalore with her family, and likes books, food, and trees.