Short Story |
Ram Prasad Dubey had been working as a security guard at Springfield Haven Condominums for the last ten years. He would always be on the ground-floor of Block 21 from mornings to late evenings. He would sit at the desk, glancing now and then at a black-and-white television which showed who was in the lift at any given time, or opening doors for whoever came in and out of the building. He sat at his desk, taking a break before the guard from the next shift arrived.
Nothing much ever happened on the job, which suited Ram just fine. He knew how to count his blessings. He had left Uttar Pradesh at the age of fourteen because his parents had become too poor to support the entire family, which consisted of two younger brothers beside himself. He had come to Singapore and had taken several odd jobs, teaching himself English with the help of other migrants from Uttar Pradesh already settled here. He landed a job selling insurance, which got him enough money to go back home for an arranged marriage to a young girl, Maya Devi, in the same hometown. After a humble ceremony, he brought his new wife to live in a three-room flat in Clementi. Later, he had found this job as a security guard, which required him to work only on certain days of the week. On the other days, he continued to sell insurance.
As he sat at the desk, Ram suddenly felt a draft of warm air, and realised someone had left wide-open the glass doors of the lobby. The air-conditioned air was escaping out into the humid evening. In India during this time, the weather would be blisteringly hot, a heat unlike the moistened warmth that clung to the Singaporean air. He went to the door, and closed it with a push of his palm. His mother had died during one such hot spell. His father had died the year after that, as if he had lost the will to live after her death. Ram had returned to India for both their funerals; simple, slightly ceremonial affairs attended by several relatives. He had fond memories of his childhood: playing with the neighbouring children, the prayer-rituals every day, his mother's spicy, tongue-prickling cooking.
Ram could feel the air cooling around him and he snuggled deeper into his chair. Suddenly he saw two women walk into the lobby. Warm air followed them in; one of the women pulled the doors close behind her. She looked at him and smiled, her lips curling sensuously. She had curly hair tinted brown and loud, expressive eyes. He smiled back shyly. By her features, he guessed that she was Punjabi. On the whole, she was quite pretty, with large breasts which pushed out against her brown dress. Her friend was a Chinese woman--with much smaller breasts--with short-cropped hair, jeans and T-shirt. Her eyes were gentle and girlish. This one hardly gave him a glance. He felt like asking them which unit they were going to, but decided against it.
The two women entered the lift and Ram watched them on the screen at his desk as the lift door slid shut. Suddenly, the boyishly-dressed one leaned over to the other and kissed her full on the mouth. He half-expected her to struggle, but the Indian--he simply assumed she was Indian--woman embraced the Chinese woman and sustained the kiss between them. Ram felt as if he could watch them kiss forever. They must be relatively new tenants if they did not know there was a security camera in the lift. They arrived at their floor and broke apart, mouths falling open to silent laughter. Then they were gone. He stared at the empty lift in the screen for a long time afterwards. He had seen women kiss each other on the cheeks, but never on the mouth, never with such mutual desire. Could a woman want another woman in that way? He knew men did such things with each other, and it revolted him to even begin imagining it.
He sat behind his desk mulling over what he had seen until the next guard, Aziz, arrived. Ram went to the restroom to change into normal clothes, then left with a wave to his colleague at the front guardhouse. As he waited at the bus stop, he thought about that kiss: the blurred, black-and-white image of those two women pressing their mouths against each other, then pulling away with laughter. There was a glow of desire between them which even the security camera had managed to capture. The bus came. He broke out of his reverie and raised his arm to wave it down. *
Back home, Maya, his wife, was already preparing dinner. When she appeared at the kitchen entrance, he suddenly realised how much she had aged since the day she had been introduced to him. Her eyes were similar to that Punjabi girl's eyes, but Maya was more petite, her lips less luscious. Now Maya looked like she had smaller eyes, and tiny grooves had accumulated in the skin under her eyes. Her breasts hung closer to her navel now under her loose nightdress. She looked at him and said in Bhojpuri, "You're back?" She would never call him by name, having been taught as a child that it was impolite. She paused for a moment, then said, 'Dinner will be ready soon.' Then she went back into the kitchen. He could smell the curry from the living room where he stood, watching her as she lifted a lid off a pot and peered inside.
Ram stripped off his clothes, but left on his janeo, a sacred string tied round his left shoulder to hang diagonally across his chest and rest on his right hip. It was a string put on him during a temple ceremony to signal a boy's entrance into a life of learning. His father had told him never to take it off, not even when bathing, and he had heeded the command ever since. After the bath, he put on some fresh clothes and called out to her. Both of them went to the altar in the living room and sat on the floor. Maya positioned herself behind Ram, who sat closer to the colourful, framed pictures of Vishnu, Bholenath, and, of course Lakshmi, arranged upon the altar around the holy book, from which he now recited a few passages.
As the words slipped soothingly from his lips: "Raghukul rit sadaa cheli aayi, pran jayay per vechen ne jayay," which refers to how one must never go back on his word, even at the cost of one's life--he could smell the shampoo scent of his wife's hair. Maya's hair used to be lovelier, more like silk; now it smelled of Lux. He finished his prayer and looked up, eyes instantly meeting Lakshmi's curvaceous torso flanked by her four arms, two holding flowers, one turned downwards to expose the palm from which a stream of coins fell.
Maya went back to the kitchen. Watching the small of her back as she walked away, he remembered the women kissing, the Punjabi girl's figure. That's not fair, he told himself. That girl was so much younger than Maya. Maya was pretty once and some of that first attraction still lingered upon her face. Time would do that to anyone. But beauty was in a smile too. When was the last time Maya smiled as beautifully as the day she was first introduced to him? He briefly remembered that day. He had been pleasantly surprised by her shy, girlish grin, her bright eyes, and the pleasing shape of her youthful body under her sari.
It must have been that day at the doctor's office when she first found out she could not have children. Neither of them had remembered the exact words. It was written on some letter the nurse gave them. The letter was in a sealed envelope somewhere in the cupboard where they kept other important documents, such as birth certificates or monthly bills. He remembered how they had discussed the matter, but not for very long. It was surprising how easily they accepted that they would never have children. But something had stopped between them, like a clock that stopped ticking. She became more reserved, more stoic, but still patient and respectful. Before they had learnt the news, Maya had been full of delightful contradictions; she was demure, yet sparkling with energy, energy that showed through when she laughed. "Come eat now," said Maya almost indifferently, as she sat down at the table. Now, she was a grey cloud mutely bearing rain, lingering in the sky without releasing her burden onto the world. He sat at the table and silently ate her cooking.
As the curry filled his mouth with its warm flavour, he thought that on the whole, she was a perfect wife, except they did not make love anymore. He fondly remembered the first year of their marriage, her smiling compliancy and her affectionate glances at him. He realised he wanted to reveal the lift incident to her. He wanted to hear what she would have to say on the matter. Years ago, she would have cracked a joke about it. She did not laugh like that anymore. Did she blame herself for being infertile? He wondered. He suddenly felt sorry for her, but how could he tell her not to blame herself, that it was only nature's fault that she could not bear any children? So many years had passed when he had not said a thing to comfort her. He remembered what happened when they had entered their bedroom for the first time together after the medical check-up. He had touched her on the shoulder and she had shivered; she had reacted as if he was suddenly a stranger to her body, the body which had quietly betrayed her.
"Are you finished?" she asked. He had finished eating and had been staring at his plate. "Yes," he replied, and looked at her time-worn face. "I am going to bed early tonight. A little tired."
She nodded, and stood up to carry the plates back into the kitchen. For a moment, the black-and-white image of the two women kissing rose in his mind. His mother had told him long ago that Maya would make a wonderful wife to him. And she was. And how he missed her, he realised. He had thought Maya needed time to deal with her barrenness. How long had it been? Not months, but years had passed. She had dealt with it in her own way, but she also had not stopped being a dutiful, attentive wife. Yet, she was a wife who had lost her passion, her easy joy. Did she perhaps think that he had lost his joy of life too?
He stood up too and went to the bathroom to wash his hands. He stared at his face in the mirror. It was his father's face reflected back. It was a warm night. It had been his fault, he realised, for tiptoeing around her, thinking she needed her own space. They had lapsed into a daily pattern which they had lived by for so many years now. Whose fault was it really that there was no more passion in their marriage? As he walked to the bed, he sensed the bedroom door opening behind him and the warmer air from the living room stealing into the darkness. He half-expected that slender Punjabi girl to appear at the doorway with a smile, and chided himself to put that occurrence out of his mind; what was the big deal with two women kissing anyway? It was Maya at the door, standing very still. She was looking at him. "Are you sure you are okay?" she asked. She was concerned. Maybe it was his after-dinner sleepiness, but she suddenly turned into his mother in the dark, her voice filling with concern, with love. She was Lakshmi, with her extra two hands tucked behind her back, and compassion shining from her eyes; he imagined Maya standing on a lotus. He felt like smiling at the image. Maya looked at him curiously and asked, "Is everything okay?"
"It's nothing," he replied. "I am okay. Finish the dishes, then come back to bed." She watched him for a second longer, looking surprised for a moment. He sat down on the bed and knew he would wait for her to finish, wait for her climb into bed beside him, at which point he would talk to her in whispers. Tell her about what had happened. Tell her about the kiss. He looked up and she was still there, looking at him with worry and something else he had not seen in a while; they held that gaze for a moment longer.
Cyril Wong is one of Singapore's leading writers/poets.
Artwork by Apurba Kanti Das