In the Backwaters

Years passed with little serious thought directed towards the man who had escaped this country to forget me. I had urged him in this direction, and considered it right he stay away to establish himself successfully with the usual NRI trappings.

 

Much admired in our family circle, we were  regularly updated about what Mukul had bought, where he had travelled, and who he knew. Such news always bored me.

 

My husband was more interested, the  accoutrements  of money and success  drew him. I didn’t see why, we had enough of our own, but he stayed with Mukul when he was in NRI land, and perhaps could visualise what these things meant. On his return he would be armed with presents, sent especially for you, he  claimed. Not wanting frequent contact, I hoped the brevity of my thank-you notes would check their abundance, but no such luck.

 

Now, after 15 years, the prodigal son had decided to make a brief visit home. My husband, wanting to repay the debt of accumulated hospitality, suggested we all go on a holiday. E-mails concerning plans cluttered up cyberspace. They wanted to go off the beaten track, and the Kerala backwaters were chosen. What a touristy  thing to do I  remarked, disappointed at the tameness of our un-beaten track, why don’t you just take them on a guided tour of exotic India and be done with it. My husband ignored me, as he did much of the time. I did not doubt his love for a moment, just that my conversation had too much of the sour for his liking.

 

The itinerary was planned, flights arranged, tickets bought and bookings made. We were a group of  ten – the two families included six parents, testimony to my husband’s tenderness for the aged.

 

For the three months before the arrival of the NRIs I found my gaze drawn repeatedly to  the mirror. The older woman I saw filled me with a nervous uneasy despair.

 

“Do you think I am still good looking?” I asked my husband, though I knew his answer would be an unconsidered yes. He thought about my appearance as little as he thought about his own. Though I normally found security in such unquestioning acceptance, his present assurances were cold comfort. And my mirror by refusing to lie, depressed me. I could do nothing but wait, preparing myself to read in his dazed, jet lagged face disappointment, the knowledge of passing time, the wonder that I had any looks left.

 

They arrived, they disappeared into his parents’ house. We went to meet them the next evening, but were told they were still sleeping. The jet lag was very bad, said the parents apologetically, but I was glad the meeting was postponed to the next day –  a 24 hour respite from disappointment.

 

Perhaps they will only wake up in time to leave for Cochin, I said in the car, but the husband did not respond.

 

We  visited again the next day, and this time  were rewarded. His and my glances slithered around each other. He told me I hadn’t changed, but I stuttered as I returned the compliment. I had  imagined him as still the same, time may have touched me but never him. But his hair line had receded, his face had filled out, his speech had a nasal twang.

 

When we talked – the visit was long – I asked him careful, conventional and casual, so what do you read now, what music do you listen to – but alas, those habits had vanished into the machines of the gym where he exercised, the pool where he swam, and the slopes where he skied.

 

His most significant achievement was by his side, his foreign wife. Through her he had gotten citizenship, through her he had access to clubs and ski resorts, through her he knew country houses and beach getaways, through her he had a fancy job in New York.

 

“How fortunate things worked out so well for you,” I said.

 

“And for you,” he replied, his glance unsmiling, watching my face. “Long before it did for me.”

 

My gaze found my husband’s back, and the sight of that safe solid somewhat heavy expanse calmed my nerves. He was bending over Mukul’s wife, enveloping her with hospitality from every pore. And what did she think of India? Oh,  so fascinating, everybody so kind.

 

I shot  Mukul  a glance as unsmiling as his own had been.

 

The way his wife was fussed over made me sick. Her first time here, his parents  could not have enough of giving her presents, showing her places, introducing her to relatives. She had an expensive well maintained look. I wondered if a plastic surgeon had been instrumental in the tightness of her skin and the strange fixity of her  perpetual grin. Certainly her teeth looked capped, her breasts were high and aggressively stretched her T shirt.

 

A week later  we flew into Cochin and stayed  on  Willingdon Island. We ate excellent food. We tagged along with  Mukul and his wife as they visited the antique shops of Jew Town, and oo-ed and ah-ed over the crammed goods in the  crowded  but spacious shops. His wife bought everything she could. It was all going to be shipped to their NRI home, paid for by NRI dollars.

 

He saw me with a wooden Natraj in my hands, without his usual halo of fire,  poised on the toes of one foot. Do you like it, he asked, I murmured something and as I moved to put it back, watched it go from my hands to his. “Interesting – why don’t you buy it?”

 

“I don’t know – it’s a lot of money – and then is it really a genuine antique – it is hard to  be sure, one doesn’t want to be cheated.”

 

“Always so careful. That hasn’t changed.”

 

There was no need for him to insult me. I joined my husband, we wandered into the synagogue, leaving them to arrange their consolidated shipping.

 

For  three days we did our five star number, spending money in fistfuls, telling each other how lovely everything was. I wished the trip would be over soon – it was disturbing to have him in front of my eyes, with the consciousness of our past history lurking beneath the surface of every exchange. This was not ground that could yield fruit, its terrain was alas, too barren.

 

From Cochin we moved to the Lake Resort at  Kumarakom, and there continued to spend money. In the evening we were rowed to the middle of the lake to watch the sunset, afterwards local musicians and dancers entertained us.  Two days later  we motor-boated to Alleppy to start our trip into the backwaters.

 

We all loved  our houseboat, but his wife was especially vociferous in her appreciation of the quaint and sweet. When we started navigating, she sat on the pilot’s seat, and tried to steer. The pilot held an umbrella over her head to protect her from the sun, while her back presented itself to us as part of the view.

 

Water was our medium for the next two nights, three days. Mukul’s wife continued to steer with the pilot in attendance, but the rest of us lounged on chairs, witness to the world sliding past, the villages stretching  parallel to  the water, and the acres of rice fields beyond. At times the river swelled into a lake, at times it divided into two, wrapping its arms around  small foliage thick islands. Along the shore long fronds of  young coconut trees bobbed against brown ripples, while banana leaves waved serrated edges against the sky. Hymns came from especially religious minded boats, Christian hymns, said our pilot, sung by a Padmashree,  Dr K J Yesudas.  Canoes, both oared and motored, criss-crossed our path. A water bus passed us, the men proudly in front, the women clustered together in the back.

 

Our collective parents  commented relentlessly on everything we saw, the houses, not like north Indian huts,  but pucca, made of brick. Everything so green, no garbage, no thin naked children, no emaciated bony weak adults, none of the poverty that assaulted newcomers, none of the aching deprivation that the inhabitants of Delhi turned their eyes against in their ongoing attempt to live comfortably.

 

We were by contrast, more silent.  In between  observing the scenery, I also studied him. Was he happy, did he love his wife? Probably. Self control and habit had made me love mine, why should he be any different, we  had been alike in so many ways.

 

“Oh look at the water hyacinths,” said his wife, as she drove over  the pale lilac flowers, “and look at  the lotuses”  as the boat nosed its way among  the white and magenta cusps.

 

“Yes, darling,” said  the good husband.

 

We passed ducks, and many cormorants with their delicate curved, vulture like necks, glistening black. In the evening we  saw hoards of children emerging from buildings, St Mary’s [all boys] and Holy Family [all girls]. At five we could still see them in their uniforms, walking along the banks, or crossing the river in long narrow boats, seated just above the water line, their school bags piled on one end.

 

“School ends awfully late here,” I say.

 

“Same as in New York,” she contributes.

 

Darkness  falls, the drinks begin, and continue as dinner was served. How good the food was! It put all of us in a wonderful, convivial mood. Ten people chomping on fried fish, fried prawns, roast chicken in gravy, rice, bhindi, ghobhi aloo with a coconut flavor, kutu cabbage, pappar, roti, and fruit salad with some local jam.

 

For the night we moored to a tree, the anchor resting coyly on the prow of the ship. It was only 7 30, but   on the water, the sun dictates everything, and when it  became dark it  felt really, really late. Fireflies among the trees perforated the darkness, winking points of light, sublime and evanescent.

 

Fortunately his wife  went to bed early, all that steering must have exhausted her. My husband disappeared as well. Tired, drunk and on holiday.

 

Inadvertently we were alone. The houseboat was large enough to feature  a small observation platform on the roof. Some conversation ensued involving fireflies, the view, the night, the brilliance of the stars, the  gentle rocking, standard stuff,  before we made our way to the deck.

 

We lay on the padded cushions. Don’t they ask you to lie down in the {Freudian}  analyst’s office, so you can connect to  the child in you more easily? And we had been joined together as children – growing up in houses  next to each other, our fathers, who were brothers, ran a family business, our mothers managed to be friends.

 

Brother and sister, you are brother and sister they had said as we grew, our brother and sister hood emphasized by the fact that we were our parents only children. We tied raakhis on one another and reaffirmed our blood bond  at every festival. Only two years older than me, he was my closest friend.

 

It happened over three summers, the love that we grew up with  deepening into one that was taboo. Discomfort was my constant companion, with him  or without him it was the same nagging uneasiness that never let me rest.

 

I was the first to break – go I urged him, go and get a life away from here, so I can get one to.

 

He had not wanted to leave, he pleaded for openness, argued that such love was the custom in other communities.

 

Then came the  caution he brought up 15 years later, and the wistfulness whenever he was mentioned, and the sadness in the dark watches of the night, that I had let something go that I  had been too scared to fight for.

 

Perhaps it was so easy slipping into our old selves because we were on a river and around us there was nothing solid.  Alone on the deck, we could slide unhindered into a past that was as muddy as the waters.  With our lives settled, our fates sealed, I felt free to do what I liked, especially since nothing could come of it, we were children no longer.

 

Afterwards I needed words, “Did you think this would happen?”

 

No, he hadn’t.

 

And had he thought about me  during the intervening years?

 

No, he hadn’t. He had had to study, get a job, in short – live.

 

I was in no position to remonstrate. But I knew how easily the desire within us had been reached. When we left Kerala, those feelings  would be overlaid by a thousand others generated by daily life. We did not know how many times we could peer through the window our bodies had made into the past, and this uncertainty drove guilt away.

 

Baby, he murmured and I responded to the disgusting – and perhaps literal – endearment with all my might.

 

We  had done what we liked in the dark. But in the daytime our spouses had their spousal antennae which quivered alertly in the confines of the boat. This made us enterprising.

 

The next day we did it in a bathroom. No romance here, just the faint smell of disinfectant, the  gentle rocking of the boat, the sound of Malayalam coming from the kitchen behind, and footfalls slamming against the wooden floor.

 

The trip to the back waters finished.

 

“What will I do when you leave?” I asked, testing the waters, swimming daringly into the open sea.

 

“What do you suggest?” he asked, refusing to swim alone.

 

I was silent. What could either one of us say that made sense?

 

 

It was time for their departure. His wife said she had had a wonderful trip, India was such a fantastic country.  The parents smirked as though they had produced the country for her benefit. “Now not so long, next visit,” they  pleaded and she said it all depended on her hubby, he was so busy, at home she hardly saw him. Again he did not say much. His parents laughed and said Mukul had become  very silent since he had arrived – he had always been a very sensitive child, and coming home after 15 years had created more emotion than he could handle.

 

Mukul interrupted their assessment of his character, he had something for us, a momento of the trip. He handed me a heavy wrapped object. I knew what it was before I even opened it – the Natraj. He had spent 20,000 rupees, even before intimacy demanded such tokens. I hoped nobody would notice the trembling of my hands as I  cradled the rough wooden surface.

 

“You could get her nothing she would appreciate more.” My husband’s words covered the awkwardness of the moment.

 

“Arre, not only her, for both,”  said my aunt.

 

I looked at the Natraj and read  the god’s advice in the  delicate, finely carved features; I should do my duty, I had chosen my path, I should tread on it without glancing here and there, I should remember that temporal  passion is fleeting. I should live only in the present.

 

“But you should not have spent so much,” continued my husband, “here you are our guest.”

 

“Arre,” said his parents, “what is too much? After all you arranged the holiday. In families it is give and take.”

 

“We hope to see you in New York soon, and maybe this time you can persuade your wife to come,” said Mukul.

 

“She doesn’t like to travel,” replied my husband.

 

This statement  had once been true.

 

“Maybe she will change her mind.”

 

“Yes, maybe.”

 

“Please,” I whispered to my husband as the NRIs got into their car, along with Mukul’s parents, while our own driver stood by with   the car door open, “please can I not come? I have got a terrible headache.”

 

“It doesn’t look nice. They always pick and drop me and now they have given you this present.”

 

“Us, they have given us. Please let me go home.”

 

“How will you go?”

 

“I will call a taxi, please they won’t mind.”

 

“I must say they will think it very strange.”

 

“Please, please.”

 

At last he agreed.  I stood in the driveway and watched him drive away, as wooden as the Natraj in my arms. There I remained standing in the New Delhi night, with the moon  beaming hazily in the sky, and the noise of traffic  only faintly heard because of the lateness of the hour, their cars among the ones on the road, among the ones that  added to the city’s pollution day and night.