Around noon, I leave the apartment and head to my parlor. The streets thrum, alternating between the silence of kiosk-style temples and frenetic calls for discounted papaya. I pass a many-legged banyan tree that wraps all around the bowl-like park. Men with weathered faces sit on stone benches built pell-mell into the nooks and crannies of the banyan. Some men are sleeping with the Prajavani open in front of them, others are resting their heads on stuffed backpacks and some are checking their bubble-button phones. I imagine these men do not have families and that they do not come from mothers either; they are simply part of the sleepy, wayward limbs of the banyan. There are days I’ve wanted to take a seat and have my lunch in their midst but there’s something menacing about the bowl-like silence of the park, the light that filters through the foliage and the faces of men who have, momentarily, given themselves up to loneliness.
I take a deep breath before diving into the thick of Malleshwaram market. The Rajasthani teenage boys sell American diamond earrings and NARS lipstick on the streets. They press their makeup kits on me every day. The boys are all related somehow, each with the same thin lips and even coppery skin. Holding a small mirror up to my face – “So beautiful madam! First-class stuff,” they say. They laugh when I look indecisive in the face of fake YSL lipstick.
Today, as I pass their corner, the boys surround a tribe of Mount Carmel girls who have ditched college to go shopping in the market. The boys ignore me, eager to sell their wares to their fresh flock. I try not to take it personally.
I recall a different Rajasthani boy from my childhood. My parents and I under a just-bloomed tabebuia tree in Cubbon Park. My father hands his camera to a passing cotton candy vendor, a lone Rajasthan boy, and asks him to take a photo of the three of us. Perhaps it was something about that uneven set up – my parents and I on one side and the boy on the other with his tall cross of cotton candy – but I desperately wanted to be outside of the photo and not the smiling face in the middle of it. I wanted to join the lonesome Rajasthani boy and sell cotton candy to the other families I was not a part of.
After he took our photo, he handed me a bag of blue cotton candy and when my father tried to pay him, he shook his head and started walking away quickly. Charmed by the boy, I told myself he would be my husband. I ate the cotton candy slowly, waiting for the sugar to dissolve on my tongue before taking another bite. I went home and looked at my blue tongue and blue lips in the mirror and pretended that this was the vestige of a secret kiss that the Rajasthani boy and I had shared.
I hold this long-buried image of the Rajasthani boy until it morphs into the face of my husband, Rohan. I have a vague memory of Rohan wearing tender, indulgent looks in those early months of our marriage but now it feels like I made all that up. Now, everything I do draws a fresh wave of irritation on his face and he’s embarrassed by my desperation. My cheeks burn as I think about the last time Rohan came by to take the last of his stuff.
I sat on our bed while he gathered his things. Just when he reached the door, I swooped down on him to block his path. I muttered something like, “Just five minutes.” It came out thick and with a morning crackle. I pulled at his pants desperately, unbuttoning that one sturdy button.
Rohan sighed heavily and it made me pause for a moment. I bent my head over his waist, feeling like a child. He enjoyed this kind of thing for a time but perhaps, in the end, it scared him. Perhaps it conveyed my loneliness in all too real terms. Once, I told him that I wanted to go down on him in public and he asked me why it had to be somewhere public.
I don’t know, I replied. He gave me a skeptical look as if to ask: where did you learn to talk like that? I was ashamed for a moment. I didn’t know how to articulate my desires. And I didn’t know my desires well enough to be clear about them. “Do you think this act is cute, Latha?” he asked impatiently. “What are you trying to do? It’s like you want me to push you away.” I started to say no, that’s not what this is but he slapped my shoulder and moved past me quickly. There is nothing about our shared life that holds Rohan still anymore. He wants a divorce because “the whole arranged marriage thing wasn’t for him.”
When I reach the parlor, Shalini, my partner is lounging on the sofa in the waiting area. She is air drying her hot orange nails.
“Not much traffic today,” she says. “One eyebrow and upper lip first thing in the morning. An underarm wax after that and nothing since then. I’m heading out now.”
Usually, Shalini joins me for lunch but she is coy about her time these days. She hasn’t said anything but I can tell she’s seeing someone. Shalini has that squirrely quality of hoarding a secret comfort as she gathers her things and leaves. I imagine the man she’s seeing. Perhaps he’s a Gowda boy, the kind who will take her to a mudde oota for lunch. They probably kiss in the banyan tree park, scandalizing the old men. As I settle onto the sofa, I resent my face reflected in the parlor mirror.
The parlor walls are a bright Malleshwaram green and in each corner, vases carry bunches of fake orange roses with stuck-on dew drops that I like to peel off when I’m bored. Brown plaid curtains section off areas where people get facials and back massages. It looks like the living room of an old-fashioned Malleshwaram house and I didn’t want to change it because the previous owner, a Nepali woman, told me that the clientele preferred this kind of setup.
“They don’t like the ritzy new salons with their Hollywood mirror lights, and perfumed rooms. They want to feel like they’re undressing in their living room,” she said before handing me the keys. But this sustained décor is what keeps the clientele the same, the kind who won’t cough up enough for tips or for us to break even. I flip through the bill book and am met with a measly figure.
Just then, the door opens and an older woman, perhaps in her late sixties looks at me curiously. “Open?” she asks in Tamil. I know just enough of the language to understand what she’s saying and I ask her to come inside. The old lady has a stiff bend to her shoulders and puffy under-eye bags that give her a profound look. There’s a trusting, complacent look about her like she’s used to receiving help from strangers. I ask her what she wants done and she starts talking in Tamil as she points to parts of her body. I tell her that I can’t understand her. She points to her face and strokes her cheeks. “A facial?” I ask doubtfully. She looks confused like she doesn’t know if “facial” is the word for it. Holding a finger up to me, she takes her phone out, dials someone, and talks rapidly. Then she hands it to me. I take the small, warm cell phone from her and hold it up to my ear. “Yes, this is her son,” says a rough voice in Kannada. “I’m sorry about this but my mother wants a face threading. That’s what she calls it.” He sounds uncomfortable saying those words. “Then, she wants a face massage with some coconut oil. And she says she’s brought her own coconut oil so she wants you to use that. And I’m not sure, I caught that last bit, can you hand the phone back to my mother?”
I return the phone to the woman. She talks with her hands balled in irritation and then hands the phone back to me.
“Yes, she wants her blackheads removed through a warm, not hot, towel treatment. And uh, I think she wants her back waxed in the very end. That’s about it, I think.”
I smile at the old lady who’s looking at me eagerly as I note down each item. I tell him not to worry about it and that I will make sure his mother is comfortable.
“Thank you,” he says with obvious relief. “You’re a big help. She’s been bored and looking forward to the parlor for days. It’s her husband’s, well, my father’s death anniversary tomorrow.” I nod as he speaks. I am not sure how to compose my face as the old woman looks on not understanding that the conversation has moved onto her personal life. “It’s been a year since he passed,” the son continues, in a confessional tone, “she was his slave basically for fifty years; cooking for him, taking care of him and now she doesn’t know what to do with her time. I hope she’s not too difficult with you today. She can be. And uh, make sure she sees you washing your hands.”
I tell him not to worry, again, then hang up. There was something vital about each of our roles in the conversation: the mother making the son her intermediary, the son making me his accomplice and myself, caring for the mother in the absence of her son. I swelled with a vague sense of gratitude at being included in their relationship.
I start by threading the stray hair on the old woman’s chin, cheeks and upper lip. She holds her soft skin tightly as I easily lope off the thin vagrant hair. The strange thing is that she talks continuously as I tend to various parts of her body. She speaks in a nasally complaint-ridden Tamil and I only vaguely understand it to be about her husband. Even though I don’t know the specifics, I get the impression that she disliked her husband and perhaps in his death, he’s cheated her somehow. But it’s strange how she’s getting beauty treatments done for his death anniversary, although I suppose it’s one way to live well and forget one’s mortality.
As I listen to the old woman, I think of Rohan. The day before he left me, we found ourselves on a walk around Ulsoor lake. We stood on the edge of the lake. I looked down into the dirty water.
“Look at the fish,” I said, pointing at the school of gray fish darting below. Rohan said he wasn’t going to look into the dirty water. He said he already knew that it was full of yellow water snakes and tangles of fungi and trash and since he knew all that, he wasn’t going to look down into the water. “It’s about looking into the depths of a lake,” I replied. “It’s not about thinking you’ve seen it all.”
He shrugged. There was no curiosity left on Rohan’s face. He was done with the lake and with its real and imagined ugliness. He left that night, taking some of his clothes in a backpack. For a few days, I convinced myself that it was temporary but the days and weeks stretched into a long, sapping loneliness. There are days I cannot bear my empty apartment and the slow activity of my parlor but mostly, I cannot bear my own company. My face has a frantic, wiry energy and I can feel my nose hang heavily and I am all too aware of the barren plains of my cheeks. I haven’t slept well and my head feels like an open, seething wound. But I know I cannot dwell on such things so I pull myself back to the present, to the conversation the old woman is having with herself at this point.
When we’re almost done, she stops talking and hastily pulls her phone out. She looks worried throughout the short conversation. Finally, she hands the phone to me.
“I’m so sorry about this,” the son’s voice comes on. “She wants to know if you can give her something sweet. Her blood sugar is dropping and she’s forgotten her box of snacks at home. I’m sorry about this. Anything you can give her, it could be a pack of biscuits or a few toffees?” “I only have my lunch with me. It’s a sweet pineapple kesari baath. Would she eat that?” I ask, as I reach into my handbag to pull out a steel tiffin box and set it on the counter.
There is a short pause. He asks me to hand the phone back to his mother. The old woman is now talking on the phone like I am not present. I can’t understand what she’s saying but I sense she’s refusing to eat my lunch. I can hear the son persisting; his voice is strained. She hands the phone back to me a bit gruffly and takes a seat. “I’m so sorry about this,” the son pleads in my ear. “I hate to ask you to do this… could you just step outside and buy her a pack of biscuits from somewhere close by?” When I don’t respond, he sighs before explaining, “My mother’s one of those old Tam Brahms who won’t eat anything prepared by a non-Brahmin, you know? And she thinks of you as staff. I’m so sorry about this. It’s awkward for me to ask for this, but her blood sugar drops rapidly. If you could just step out for a moment, she’s not choosy about the kind of biscuits or chocolates.”
My face is warm and there’s a knot in my throat. I stare at my steel lunch box sitting on the counter, glowing under the fluorescent tube light. The son is waiting for my answer. I make an impatient sound in agreement and hand the phone back to the old woman. She looks tired and is sitting on a chair with her head tilted back. I tell her that I will be back in a moment.
Outside, the dark gray clouds make bulky shapes in the sky. The blood is rushing to my face. I am embarrassed of the role I eagerly played between the mother and son. It is obvious to me now that the whole phone conversation was nothing more than a practical arrangement. I am ashamed of myself for finding the son’s concerned voice so sweet to the ear. For those few moments, he made me feel like I was a necessary part of his day and I wanted to help him by helping his mother. I start to imagine his face: would he have his mother’s dark brown eyes? How would he say my name in conversation? Would he use the short, common Latha or the long, sweet Lathashree? I stop and scold myself – you don’t need the passing closeness of every single person that crosses your path, understood? But I think of Rohan slipping away, taking with him our brief marriage and all my imaginations of family and I let myself think of the woman’s son a little longer.
I buy a bar of cheap Cadburys at the closest kaka shop and head back to the parlor. The old woman looks up at me weakly when I walk through the door. I remove the golden crinkly foil and hand the semi-melted blob of chocolate to her like I am discarding the brown wobbly poop of some small animal. She gobbles it up with great relief and sits still for about twenty minutes. I set the wax going in the corner heater and watch it burp tiny air bubbles as it warms. When the old woman starts to speak in that unceasing manner of hers, I know she’s going to be all right. When she’s able to stand up, I point to her back, asking if she’d like to start the waxing. She shakes her head dully. She looks done for the day and I am relieved by the prospect of closing the door on her face.
I quickly make the bill and hand it to her. The old woman takes her thin cotton purse from her handbag and peers at the bill. I hand-gesture the numbers at her. As she reaches into her purse, her eyes grow wide and she starts to look frantically inside her handbag. She rakes the bottom of her handbag, pulling out loose change. Her phone is out again and she practically shouts into the receiver before handing it to me. “You must think we’re so difficult,” the son starts. “Again, I’m sorry about all this. She’s always been so forgetful when she goes out. I could drop by after work and make the payment. How late are you open?” I tell him the closing time. “That works for me, I will stop by after work. I’m so sorry,” he repeats in his persuasive voice. “We’ve inconvenienced you all afternoon and you’ve been so kind to her.”
I say something like “no issues” and get off the phone. The old woman looks sheepish as I hand the phone back to her. She slaps her forehead and rolls her eyes like it’s been a long day for her. I smile tightly as I wave goodbye. When I’m alone, I put up a “closed” sign and sink onto the sofa with my lunch. I am exhausted by the heavy sense of duty in the son’s voice, that responsibility which I took on as my own.
On the sofa, I open my tiffin box and the smell of pineapple and clove fills the air. I look at the congealed kesari baath and notice that the top of it has been evenly leveled off. I hold the box up to my nose and look at it closely. The old woman had eaten some of my lunch. I am certain of it. I can see the clumsy way she’s smoothed down the soft mass of rava. I’m so angry with the old woman and her son, the demands they’d made on my time, and the way they’d made me feel, like someone on the margins of love. I throw the lunch box against the door. The sweet dish explodes, splattering the mirror and the lurid green walls.
Later that evening, I find traces of stewed pineapple around the parlor countertop and in the fake roses in the corner. I clean up for the day, delaying closing up because I am hoping that the old woman’s son comes by to make her payment. I watch Kannada Big Boss reruns on my phone after our official closing time and my head whips to the door hopefully every time I hear footsteps outside.
When I am close to giving up, the door opens and a man comes in. He has a milky, non-descript face like a fairness cream model. He looks tired as he draws his wallet out and asks, “My mother’s bill?” For somebody who was so chatty on the phone and persuaded me into dealing with his demanding mother, the son’s demeanor towards me is abrupt and careless. His face is blank, refusing to acknowledge the day’s back and forth over the phone. Is this what I get for not letting that casteist bitch pass out on my parlor chair? Even his voice sounded different in person. Where were all the sorry’s and thank-you’s?
The son is not interested in me; not in the way I had been interested in him, waiting eagerly to match his voice to a face. I had imagined something else; perhaps we would complain sweetly to each other about our day and the old woman and perhaps he would thank me for everything I’d done. But he doesn’t. He acts like he doesn’t know me.
The final blow is the meager tip he leaves on the counter. I look at the coins and the anger returns. I cannot afford to throw it back at him in derision so I clutch it between my fingers and watch him leave the parlor. He looks preoccupied, nose in the air like a street dog who has heard a beckoning sound in the distance. I imagine him running more errands for his mother, his wife, his big fat family and I am suddenly filled with a renewed hate for all of them.
I take a different route home, one that circumvents the market area. It starts drizzling when I pass the corner of the banyan tree and I take shelter on a dry stone bench, shielded by a bit of canopy. The men around the banyan look at me curiously but when I stare back, they fold their faces away like observed owls. Some men, though, continue to look at me now and then as if trying to understand why I am sitting with them. I want to tell them that there is nothing special about my loneliness, that it is “just like yours!”
Perhaps we’re all just passing the time, mourning the love we didn’t receive. Perhaps we’re all just sitting with a few talismans: a stray face, a wisp of kindness, something we’re proud of, one or two regrets and our smallest hopes, waning.
An empty apartment awaits me – there are no reconciliations with Rohan or with my imaginations of love and family. A few men get up and leave because it is close to dinner time and after all, they do have families waiting for them. The evening light is grayish purple as the sun finally sets behind a stack of buildings. The screech of traffic surrounds us. I continue to sit at the banyan tree alone, getting soaked to the bone as it rains harder.
Keerthana Jagadeesh is a fiction writer based in Bangalore. Her short fiction has been published in Ducts, The Irregular Times and is forthcoming in nether Quarterly. She is working on her first novel.