It had been a week since Parvati had found out about Manmohan’s affair. Only 7 days ago, she’d reached out for his phone to switch off the trilling alarm, when she stumbled upon 56 text messages exchanged between someone named B and her husband over 3 hours. It was 7:00 am, and he was asleep in the other room as she felt her body aflame and heavy. Not knowing what she could do to douse this fire that she couldn’t fully register, she went on about her morning as she did every day.
In her bedroom, she watched a drooling Manmohan lost to the world of sleep. The fog from earlier settled heavier on her brain, as she wore her morning walk salwar kameez and looped the shoelaces around her ankle. Only when she felt her legs go numb from activity, did she realise that Manmohan and B had stayed up for most of the night talking to each other. It embarrassed her that he had become mechanical about touching her lately. When she brought it up hesitantly, he reprimanded her that it was not their age to pay more than required attention to ‘these things’ anymore. But here he was, talking to someone like a giddy teenager, falling asleep just before dawn. “Gn or shud I say gud mrng. Hehe. Vish I was bedded next to you.” That was the last SMS that Manmohan had sent before falling asleep in the other room.
As she was making tea, the words “Vish I was bedded next to you.” had lost all meaning and muddled into each other. VishIwasbeddednexttoyou, vishIwasbeddednexttoyou, vishIwasbeddednexttoyou. The more she repeated them in her head, the more they lost their meaning and the power they had over her. But she became painfully aware of their meaning when she’d just stopped thinking about them and had the first sip from her cup of tea. She made another cup for Manmohan and took it to the living room to leave it on the dining table.
Hot tears stung her eyes as she saw him bent over the paper at the dining table. She was grateful he was sitting in his usual place, with his back to her. She wondered if flinging the tea cup at his head of white hair would kill him. She imagined his shocking white hair soaked with milky tea and blood. She forgot when she had stopped telling him to dye it. She was envious of how comfortable he was with it, though children in the society had started calling him ‘dadaji’. On days when he incensed her in an argument she’d spit out ‘buddha kahin ka’ as she stormed out of the room.
As she placed the cup of tea in front of him, she sat down and observed him. His white hair, his paunch where his ganji stretched and the pajama that surrendered and settled just below it. Except these time-caused changes, he looked pretty much the same. She thought about how she tied her salwar mid-stomach, over her navel so it was easier to pull her stomach in. And how she never stopped dyeing her own hair. He picked up the cup of tea and began saying something to her, all she could hear were the words “Vish I was bedded next to you.” When she shut her eyes to keep the tears from falling it felt like the insides of her eyes were branded by the words of that last SMS. Their searing pain made itself felt each time they appeared.
Defeated by her emotions, she retreated to the bedroom. She thought of wailing and beating her chest, to distract herself from the pain of what she had discovered. She’d seen it happen often in movies. Women and widows mourning to the rhythm of their own thumping chests. An act so passionate, she wondered whether the tears came from the pain they felt in their hearts or in their chests.
She thought of all the things she would say as she would beat the drums that her sternum was. “You pig, you bloody buddha, bloody bastard. What did I do to deserve this? I should’ve listened to my sister and never married you. Marrying you was the biggest mistake of my life.” But thinking of all this fatigued her. The anger on her face disappeared, she turned pale and slumped into the bed. She shut the door and pulled the covers over herself and declared to the person who was her husband for 32 years, the one who had an affair with someone named B – “I’m unwell.” Manmohan grunted in response. As an afterthought he added, “Do you want Anisha to get you something?”
Anisha knew Amma’s declarations of being unwell were usually more than that. Amma was unwell when Thatha had passed away 8 years ago. Amma was unwell when Anisha had decided to move to Bombay for her graduate studies. But she was no longer too young to understand or too defiant to enquire. She cut an apple and took it to her room, like she did as a kid whenever Amma was sick. “Amma, I brought you some apple slices.” she said as she gently placed her hand on her mother’s back. Pat came the words “Just give me some poison instead.” And then Parvati sobbed like a kid who’d scraped her knee on concrete for the first time. Anisha said nothing for a while after Amma unraveled in front of her.
Parvati couldn’t stop talking, words and a little spittle flew out of her mouth. At first, the words came with urgency between sobs, then they slowed down to an impassionate stating of facts. Pa was having an affair but she didn’t know who the woman was and she didn’t know what to do. Parvati’s tears now were a steady stream from her eyes to the middle of her chin. “All these years weren’t enough. All of me wasn’t enough. I don’t want to believe it now but I think I knew all along. But I kept lying to myself because being wanted enough, sometimes made me feel like I was enough.” A teary-eyed Anisha squeezed Parvati’s hand as she got up, went to the cupboard and started packing her mother’s clothes. “We need to get out of here. I don’t know if I can do anything to help mend things with Pa, if that’s what you want to do. But I know that right now you need to put some distance between you, him and everything that reminds you of him.”
“But where to? Periamma’s place?” Amma asked.
“Chee no, why would you want to go to Periamma’s place?”
“We’ll go where the broken-hearted go, to drown their sorrows in the sea.”
The resolve in Anisha’s eyes sparkled as she booked tickets, hotels and packed her own bags. In 3 hours, they were out of their house and on their way to the airport. Manmohan was fed lunch and the excuse of Amma visiting one of her best friends dropping in very surprisingly to Bombay.
Parvati crinkled at the smell of the sea that the breeze brought in with it. It reminded her of fish markets and clothes that were left soaking too long in the bucket. At Anisha’s insistence, she shut her eyes tight as she brought the bottle to her lips. She grimaced as the fizzing, amber liquid tickled her nose and exploded on her tongue in tiny bubbles. The only thing she tasted was how bitter it was. She gulped it down but kept the grimace intact as she scolded Anisha “Chee, don’t make me drink that again. I don’t know how you taste it and still reach for the bottle. I don’t know how anyone can like beer.” Anisha chuckled as she pulled the condensing pint towards her and signalled for the waiter. Parvati fidgeted with her hat and her sunglasses then gave up, and let the sun hit her face and neck at all the wrong angles and intensities. Feeling the too hot sun had felt better than feeling nothing at all. “One anything that’s alcohol but doesn’t taste like it for my mother and another pint for me.” She turned to look at the sea her mother was already so lost in.
“Amma, do you feel any better?”
“I feel light-headed but right here in my chest, I still feel heavy. If that’s what feeling better feels like, then yes, I feel better.”
Being at the airport felt like forever ago. They were an odd pair in the tourist crowd, full of young people: in love with each other and with life. Anisha had her arms around Parvati’s shoulder, squeezing it firmly, as if her mother would fall apart if she didn’t. But she knew this day was coming. It had been a very difficult 2-month wait for her. As her 2nd beer and her mother’s something-that-didn’t-taste-like-alcohol arrived, Anisha thought of the night her Pa had started feeling like someone else to her.
She’d woken up for a glass of water that night. And on her way to the kitchen, she’d seen her father sitting at his usual spot at the dining table. Because his phone was set to a larger font size, she could see what her squinting father was typing in the dark room.
“I want 2 meet u soon, can’t wait to hold u.”
“Go 2 sleep naughty boy Manmohan” came the reply.
“To you, I’m Mannu. Only Mannu” her father typed and hit send.
Anisha walked back into her room, mortified that someone had called her father a naughty boy and that her father wanted to hold this person and have her call him Mannu. She placed a pillow on her face and screamed into it. Her head started throbbing with questions. Should she confront Pa? Is it even what she thinks it is? Did she dream it? Why was she feeling hot and cold at the same time? She really needed that glass of water now, she willed herself with every bit of her being, the willingness never came. Her mind raced, her head hurt, her breath quickened, all she could think of was knowing more.
Even as a kid, Anisha wanted to know more. Parvati would often fret over her asking her a million questions a day. When she ran out of answers and patience, she bought a huge pile of encyclopedias. The ones that came in brick-like volumes and covered almost everything – a spotted venomous frog found in the Amazon forests, the neck-ring-wearing tribes in Africa and active volcanoes around the world. When they were studying the Indian independence movement in class five, she’d raised her hand and asked her teacher if she knew what the textbooks in Pakistan said. The teacher had asked her to stand outside the class for the whole lecture, but Anisha only thought of how she could get her hands on a Pakistani school’s history textbook.
She started spying on her father. She’d learnt to be so quiet that she could stand behind him at an arm’s length for an exchange of 5 messages between him and B. It was the same every night. Text messages, several of them. Until it wasn’t. One night there was a picture that made her mouth go dry. She blinked several times and almost coughed as her breath caught in her throat. On the screen was a dark penis, erect against a thicket of pubic hair.
“Wooow, big boy!!!” her Pa typed.
“Show me urs” came the reply.
She didn’t have it in her to stand there any longer and went back to her room. In her room, she went through the family pictures on her phone to look for clues, signs, anything that could prove the truth or falsehood of what she had come upon. Did she miss a flick of the wrist, a swish of the hip? Was there some clue in her father’s shirts? She felt ashamed of herself for thinking in such cliches but if she could find truth in these cliches, she would look through them all. She thought of looking through her father’s cupboard the next day. And then she laughed at the thought of looking for a clue in her father’s cupboard.
Amma had done everything that she could to be a good wife to this man who was receiving pictures of penises and complimenting a man named B about the size of his penis. That damned penis. She saw it everywhere and each time she saw it, newer details sprung up. A popping vein running across its length on the left, how it veered just slightly to the right. She typed “penises” into the search bar of the all-knowing internet search engine and tried to forget the penis. She devoured images of anonymous phalluses on the internet. It didn’t help. It only made her angrier at her Pa.
She loved Pa, he’d always taken her side when things got bad between her and Amma. He was the one who encouraged her to move to Bombay for college. And those years in Bombay had changed her and changed her life. He was the one who put dazzling images and ideas of the outside world in her head that she explored with passionate interest. He complimented her on shorts that were too short for her Amma, he asked her why she didn’t wear sleeveless tops or the latest fashion he’d seen other girls wearing often.
It angered her to see her mother faithfully love Pa, even after all these years she woke up before him to make his first cup of tea. She always made sure there was something that he liked for breakfast, lunch or dinner. She let him choose the destinations for their family vacations. She bought sarees in his favourite colours. He never asked her to do any of these things but her mother did them anyway. Anisha sucked in her breath in exasperation and then, she cried silently.
With each passing day, it got difficult for Anisha to stay in the same room as Manmohan. Around him she felt like a sealed cola bottle that someone had shaken vigorously. She only spoke to him when he spoke to her and started leaving the room he walked into, on some pretext or the other. One Saturday evening, she came out to the living room and called out to her mother asking about a blue top she hadn’t seen in a while. Manmohan’s voice answered, “She’s gone for a Lalitha Sahasranamam chanting with Kaveri Aunty.” Seeing her father browsing through the phone made her fizz violently. She stood in front of him, waiting for him to look at her. When he looked up after what felt like several minutes, she said “Pa, who is B?” Manmohan stared at her blankly and a few seconds later, her father was back, saying “I don’t know who you’re talking about.” Anisha wasn’t speaking anymore, but the words she didn’t want to speak, came out anyway “You know who I am talking about.” Her father looked away and said “I told you I don’t know.” The violent fizzing had been replaced by a cold flatness. “But I know.”
Anisha didn’t know what she was expecting from that confrontation with her father. She left the room angry and red all over. Anger boiled and churned in her head like lava. Slick bubbles of them burst on the insides of her head near her temples, with each thought. Her father was lying, every word was a lie, everything was a lie. He was a good father to his daughter but that didn’t suffice. She wanted him to be a good husband to her mother too. If she couldn’t tell her mother about Pa, she would make sure her mother found out. She noticed that since their conversation, Pa never left his phone unattended nowadays. He carried it with him or hid it well, whenever he left it out. Except for when he charged his phone at his bedside table when he was asleep. She knew what she had to do.
A few days later, the alarm rang on Manmohan’s phone in the living room at 6:45 am, and startled Parvati. She squinted at the screen, turned off the alarm and went on to clear all the notifications as she did on her own phone. She cleared all of them except one, the one that was about a message from someone named B. It read, “Gn Mannu. Vish I was bedded next to u.”
The sea breeze had now begun to cool down. The sun didn’t blaze angrily in the sky anymore. It was ready to make its journey to the other end of the world.
“Amma, let’s go?”
“The sun is going to set soon and I’m about to order myself another one of this drink.”
“Let’s stay then, till you finish your drink.”
“Hmmm.” Parvati took a deep breath taking in the scent of the sea and said, “Let’s stay.”
Parvati didn’t remember the last time she had forgotten to think about Manmohan. Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe it was the truth. Maybe it was both. She liked this feeling of thinking about no one but herself. She liked that Anisha began every day with asking her what she wanted to do for the day. She hadn’t thought about what she wanted to do for so many years. Her stomach rumbled her out of her train of thought. She picked up the food menu and trailed her finger along the lists on every page, squinting to read, asking Anisha to explain the names of some foods she didn’t understand. Then, as Anisha raised her hand to call for the waiter, she patted it down and raised her own. “Will that be all madam?” the waiter asked as he folded the menu in his arms. To which, Parvati smiled and said “Yes, this is enough for now.”
Aishwarya Prabhala is a serial question-asker and answer-finder. She is a trained extrovert and an untrained yoga-doer. She enjoys the simple things that life has to offer – bad jokes, a glass of perfect-temperature water, a good book, a good song, petting cats, sunny days, plates heaped with hot food, overpacking for trips and linking arms while walking.