Colored Red

Short Stories / Friday, May 12th, 2017

This was in my Gmail Drafts. I have reproduced it faithfully without editing. I remember writing this story after my friend’s life.  July 14, 2010, is the date. I don’t know how this friend is doing since she mysteriously decided to vanish from my life a few years ago. Some of this is fiction, but the sad part is most of it is not. When are we going to lead lives that do not mean subjugation to conditional love? When do we learn to not mar our freedom under the guise of duty? When we do live, truly?



The bottle of Phenol swayed dangerously in the air. “If you go, I am taking this,” Ramesh Subramanyam, normally the most placid of men to outsiders, was unveiling the most theatrical of dramas at home. Disha looked at her Dad disbelievingly. It didn’t seem real. None of this seemed real. This house, the red oxide on the floor, the blue walls, the slowly whirring ceiling fan, the walls that bore their scars of the years. Her Mom was standing in the corner not daring to look, crying. Her brother looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here. Outside, the kid from the neighboring house wailed. “Stop it, Dad,” she said. “No. You are not going. That’s my word.” “You cannot blackmail me like this Dad,” she responded, tired to lift her voice to match his. “Well as parents we deserve respect,” Subramanyam thundered.

Respect. She smiled at that word. Since when did respect mean holding your own daughter to ransom? She thought of all those years – years spent shivering because she didn’t want to hurt her parents. Hurt. Again, a word so easily used. So easily misunderstood. And so easily abandoned were the ones who hurt. We couldn’t take the ones we hurt – almost as if our guilt drives us away from their pain. The pain you inflicted. Would you do the same Dad? she thought. He was waiting, still in the theatrical pose. It had been a few seconds but it seemed like they had been standing like that all their life. Her Dad always insisting on his way. She fighting, then collapsing, giving in, fighting. The pattern never changed. Her Mom, Savitri, would never voice a thing against her husband. Her brother supported her – as he always did, but at 19, he was just a wimp against the wily ways of her Dad. Not that she hated him. Far from that. Respect? No. That she couldn’t say. But she loved him. In her own way. As daughters are meant to love their fathers. How unthinkable it would be to hate him! she thought suddenly. The very thought! Society would shiver in its trembled attire of disguise. “I am going to Bhutan. You know that. Now please keep that bottle away,” she went to him. Subramanyam turned, and threw the bottle down, the liquid poison spilling out a white pattern on the red floor. “Get out of my sight.”

She turned. Her Mom was already in the kitchen, searching for the mop to clean the Phenol. Her brother remained still on the sofa, looking dazed and turned on the TV. Her Dad walked to his room, slamming the door shut. Thud. The sound resonated through the room. It had been a catastrophic evening but now Disha smiled. She could pack her clothes finally. That trip to Bhutan was waiting. Tomorrow morning.

A pack of dogs wailed. With a start, she closed the book she was just gazing at. Bhutan seemed just a distant memory now. Just over a year ago. Her father had never asked her how it had been. It was like she had disappeared for a while, for those short 10 days of momos and butter tea, and then had come back just the same. Dad spoke just as normally as he always did. Short, brisk questions on work. Then he would talk : his work, he needed money to paint the house, would she lend some? Aunt Pavithra had come over the other day, you know, with the usual horoscope. She smiled again. That’s what she was doing a lot of these days in life – when it seems that you are up against a rock, when it seems that only clouds hang thick on your windows, and it seems that everyone you know just aren’t the ones you knew -it was best to smile. Almost as if Disha could wish it away. Wish away her life on a smile.

There was a shout from the kitchen. Her Mom. She was still the same. Quiet. Loved her kitchen. Worried about her marriage. “My marriage,” Disha thought ruefully. She wondered why her parents had not married her off when she was 5. Or perhaps even later at 15. Why wait till she was 26 and too old? “Now is the time to search,” they would say. “Just search and keep the boy ready.” As if the “boy” was a car to be bought from a used car showroom. “Marriage can happen whenever you are ready,” they would say anxiously, almost magnanimously. Here, marriage was never an act of love. “Love is overrated,” her Dad had once said in a rare moment of candor. Marriage was duty. Or just plain burden. Joy was somehow missing in that description. She wasn’t sure even if her Mom loved her Dad or vice versa. They seemed married to each other in much the same way you would associate a rose with a thorn. Each was a necessary if painful appendage of another. “Would I become one too?” she mused, twirling the edges of Jude the Obscure in her hands. Just an appendage to someone? She had seen the latest appendage yesterday. He seemed better than the others. The usual retinue of seemingly well-meaning uncles who usually believed that marriage was everyone’s right had trilled about his virtues.  Fairly short. With an engineering background, the uncles had beamed. Working in an MNC, they had fairly screamed. She had stood there in her green sari with a glass of orange juice to give the “boy.”

Times had changed a little after all. Coffee need not be served always. He is wearing glasses and an awful pink shirt. He hadn’t looked up when she gave the orange juice. Her Dad had leaned back on the sofa, content. This was a good match. Great family, he had stressed. Lawyer Somanna’s own nephew, imagine! The boy was soft-spoken, decent, and well-to-do. He had not asked for any dowry even! It’s a great match, he had stressed, twirling the ends of his panche with pleasure. Disha had looked at the boy. Not just once. But kept looking at him. Willing him to lift his eyes and glance at her. Acknowledge her. But the boy seemed to be interested in her Mom’s pallu, in her brother’s shoes, at her Dad’s scooter parked outside. Anything but her. The conversation was sporadic. “My daughter works in IBM,” her Dad said, a hint of pride unusually lacing his laconic voice. “Would the boy like to talk to the girl?” one of the uncles enquired. Disha held her breath. “No, it’s fine,” he mumbled. Fine? What on earth did that mean? she thought. There was a whispered consultation among the uncles. All too soon, everyone seemed keen to leave. Another one bites the dust, she thought. Another seeing, another rejection. She was tired of this drama, this facade to bring out social normalcy when the whole process of marriage itself seemed so abnormal. Who in their right minds thought that two human beings could live with each other and only each other and not get bored? No wonder there were affairs, she thought. More affairs than marriages.

It had been evening when they left. And night when it happened. That phone call that now haunted her. There had been excited talking, she could hear it from her room. And then her parents came. With a happiness that she had never seen on their faces before. “The boy agreed Di!” her Dad said. Her Mom sat down by her bed, face for once wreathed in smiles. “He likes you!”. She remembered sitting stunned. “We are thinking of a wedding in May. What do you think?” her Dad asked. And then it hit her. She could not say no. Hell, there was no yes or no. That decision had been taken out of her hands, wrenched with force and handed to that “boy.” That nameless appendage who decided in one stroke to change her life. Her life. Without her consent. She tried to think of all the different arguments she had used in the past. “I don’t want marriage right now. I am too young.” She turned them all mentally in her mind. “I don’t like that boy. He looked dumb.” Life’s arguments came rushing through her. She could imagine her friends laughing at the story of how she dumped that boy who never looked or spoke to her. “Good for you,” they would have said. She looked at her Dad. Preparing herself for the onslaught. The Phenol. The threats. The weeks of silence that would follow her rejection. “Dad..” she began uncertainly. And then she felt it. Her Mom’s hand on her hand. A gentle pressure. A squeeze. She looked at her Mom. And then she understood. Saw through the years of pain her Mom had gone through – her Mom, her mother wanted this marriage. It gave her hope, something to talk to the neighbors, a life perhaps of grandchildren, a life beyond this kitchen. She could see in her Mom’s eyes her own life. A life that was not hers but her Mom’s. And she could not bear to hurt. Not she. She held her hand. And had said, “May is fine.”

“Disha!” her Mom shouted. Louder this time. Irritation veering on the surface. She sighed, shut the book. Coffee would be ready. On a Sunday afternoon at 4pm, coffee would be ready. Along with a snack that her Dad liked. In all her life, she had never seen this ritual broken. Sunday meant coffee at 4 with usually hot pakoras or bajjis. Her Dad would sit with a newspaper in that wrought iron chair that he liked. She wasn’t even sure if he read the newspaper. Her Mom would prepare the coffee but it was she, Disha, who would have to hand it to her Dad. She wasn’t sure from when but from as long as she could hold a plate or a tumbler, it was Disha who had to handle this sacred task. “Cut the crap feminism,” she told herself sternly. It was her Dad after all. Felt nice to serve him, she said biting her lip. The wedding had been fixed for May. It would a ‘grand’ affair, her Dad had promised. The grand part of it was to come from her wallet, of course, he having saved little himself. She had met the “boy,” his name was Rajesh, she had since learnt once after. He had spoken to her, asked her about her “hobbies,” and she had had to invent some on the spot. Hobbies? Who ever used that word these days? “I don’t read,” he had declared, almost as if it was a sin. She had crumbled inwardly at those words, cursing the imagination of a lost adolescence that dreamt of her spending Saturday nights cuddled in bed with a book, her husband, and her husband’s book. Reading. Just like that. The two of them. She was not even sure if she had wanted marriage. But that thought had stayed. Warm and fuzzy, logged somewhere in her mind. She had brushed that image away. Told the boy with a smile, “Yeah, reading is boring.” She wasn’t sure why she had told that. Yet it seemed right. When your life begins to resemble a lie, it seems almost sinful to contemplate truth. Rajesh had seemed almost abnormally nervous, habitually twitching his moustache. She couldn’t imagine even kissing him. With all that hair, she had thought, gagging. They had stood in silence on her balcony. After the hobbies, there seemed little left to say. “I don’t mind you working,” he had said suddenly. She was taken aback. She didn’t remember asking his permission, yet here was this strange person, who was to be her husband in a few months time, telling her that she had permission. She laughed. “Thanks,”she said.

“That was really nice of you.” But he had missed the sarcasm. “But once the baby comes, it would be better if you don’t,” he added. The sky seemed overwhelmingly blue. Almost blinding you in its intensity. She wished it weren’t so. Life shouldn’t appear to be so beautiful when it just cuts you short with a knife each time. She glanced at Rajesh. He seemed perfectly serious. He had this planned out. A nice wife, a baby in perhaps a year or so. Marriage? What was there to think so much of? She swallowed. “Sure,” she said. Anything. Anything to make me forget this is real. That is happening. “You have a choice,” her best friend had told her. But Disha knew she didn’t. Choices can never be between hell and hell. Choosing one hell over another was not an act she wanted to make. And she had promised her Mom.

She walked across the small corridor.  It was just a short 10-second walk there. But it felt almost timeless. Like how life almost seems to lose meaning just when you find its own absurdity. Like how time seems to almost gain in stature when you lose too much of it.

The kitchen was small. She had never liked being in this kitchen. Small. Small. Small. Too small to keep two people in it without them touching each other. She hated it. She turned to pick up the bottle of sugar, and their arms brushed. Her Mom’s arm was sweaty. Greasy. Hairy. It repulsed her. The thought choked her even before she finished thinking it. “My Mom’s arms repulse me?” she silently asked. “My Mom? My Mom’s arms?”

She wanted to laugh. Almost hysterically. Suddenly life appeared so right. So blue in that faint afternoon light. Life was hell. And she was the mistress of it. Rajesh came swirling in her mind. One day she would be in HIS kitchen, serving HIM coffee, and HIS baby would be crawling bare-bottomed on the floor. She would be HIM. His life would be hers. And everyone’s life would be right.

Oh, she wanted to laugh. Just laugh.

Laugh like she had never laughed before as that old cliche goes.

Shake her Mom and dance with her. Turn her around. Whirl around in that crazy kitchen with its odd assortment of steel containers, and that three burner stove with the pressure cooker. Dance till her Mom’s sari pallu swayed. Till it caught fire. Till the fire singed the indifference in her eyes. The pain in her mind. Catch the fire. Play with it. Watch her Mom burn. And laugh. Laugh at it all. Laugh at the pain only pain can know.

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