Standing in front of the pantry’s double doors, Shanti counts the number of fights on her fingers. She disregards arguments (last night’s: the corruption surrounding the Common Wealth Games) and disagreements (the most recent one regarding new tiles for the bathroom). These normal and petty, like change lining the bottom of her purse. A fight originates from a secret, the ones that thrust against your diaphragm, contracting and expanding with each breath. Shanti pushes her thoughts aside by flinging open the pantry and reaching for an onion.
Kiran honks at the auto-rickshaw cutting him off. He hates the traffic in Bangalore and has no patience for driving. The road is designed to hold two lanes, but the city’s drivers have managed to create five. Six, if you count the Vespas using the sidewalk. Things would move so much faster if everyone just used the lanes. More than anything, Kiran appreciates efficiency. He’s currently designing a house powered completely on solar energy and mobile walls. This way, families can adapt the layout of their home to their changing requirements.
“Stupid cockroach,” he mumbles, referring to the black autorikshaw. He thinks of the ease of Shanti’s driving. She’s good at squeezing the car between cows and trucks. She’s good at ignoring lanes and making illegal u-turns and she always anticipates the movement of the other drivers. It’s like she’s a mind reader or a fortuneteller, although she claims it’s just a woman’s intuition. Kiran’s phone rings and he quickly puts it on speaker, thinking it’s a client.
“Hello,” he says, driving past his favorite pani puri wallah, setting up shop in front of the Vodafone store.
“Reena?” He takes his right hand off the steering wheel and rubs his palm on his jeans.
“Surprised to hear from me?”
“Yes,” he says, quickly, “I didn’t know you were back in India.”
“I came home last month,” she says. He pictures her smiling into her phone, maybe sitting in her new home office with her feet on the desk. “But, listen yaar, I want to see you. You and Shanti.”
“Sure,” Kiran says, “whenever you’re free.”
“Tomorrow for dinner.”
Kiran swallows hard, “Tomorrow?”
“No excuses,” Reena says, “I’m even making vegetarian khaana for Shanti.” She hangs up before Kiran can respond. He makes a left onto his street and, ignoring his beeping phone, honks loudly. Lakshmi, the maid, runs out from the front door and opens the gate. Kiran waves her aside and drives through. Their house is old, in a tiny corner of greenery that has somehow managed to fight off the encroaching city for years. Shanti’s parents live downstairs and Shanti convinced Kiran that they should live with them. “We can build a house on top of this one,” she said. “How do you expect me to leave my parents? How can they live alone?” So, the upstairs house rests on the roof of the old house, stressing the foundation of the entire structure. Kiran wants to move and take the opportunity design the perfect home, but how can he when Shanti makes him guilty about leaving? How could he when he looks forward to his mother in law’s cooking every night?
Kiran walks through the vegetable and herb garden. He stops to admire a tomato, but wishes that Shanti would plant flowers. The garden leads to a cement staircase; Kiran climbs to the top and sits on the last step. He’s about halfway through his cigarette when Shanti opens the door.
“Oh, you’re home.” She takes the cigarette from his hand and smokes it, leaning against the railing. She’s wearing her dupatta in her hair, like an actress from the seventies. “Do you want chai? How was work?”
Kiran smiles and wonders if she’s being cute so he agrees with her choice of bathroom tiles (sorbet with white accents). “Yes for chai and work was fine.” He walks inside and with his back to her asks, “How do you feel about getting a driver?” Shanti puts the cigarette in the ash tray and follows him, closing the door behind her. She wanted to sit outside with him, enjoying the monsoon breeze.
“No, I like driving myself. It’s fun,” she says, her mood suddenly sour. Kiran has his shoes off and a remote in his hand. He doesn’t turn on the T.V., but taps the edge of the remote on his teeth. The sound annoys Shanti, but it helps Kiran think. It’s his personal metronome, keeping him focused and on beat. Shanti throws the strainer on the cup’s rim, imagining she’s flinging the Kiran’s remote out the window. “Here,” she says when she’s finished, “your chai.”
“Thanks.” He puts the remote on the table and takes a sip of his tea. He rubs his forehead, conscious of the large crease that appears between his eyebrows when he’s stressed.
“Kiran,” Shanti says, curling next to him, “something wrong?” Kiran clears his throat and puts the cup on the table, about two inches away from the remote. He immediately picks it up again, realizing it could be a reasonable shield in the event that Shanti attacks. Kiran’s nervous; he can feel a fight brewing. Shanti and Kiran rarely fight. Kiran defines a fight as a consequence of bringing up Reena. He doesn’t have to even say her whole name; just the first syllable is an aggressive attack to Shanti. For example, they could be having a cool and logical discussion, when Krian (against his better judgment) says, “Remember Reena’s flower garden?” Shanti would raise her eyebrows and respond, “Is that why you’re still in love with her? Because she grows flowers?” And before Kiran can call her insecure, Shanti would throw a plate on the floor. After a two day silent treatment, Kiran would sheepishly crawl into bed and whisper a careful apology. He knew it was his fault for bringing up Reena at all.
“Do we have any plans for dinner tomorrow night?” he asks, crossing his legs and leaning back into the couch.
Shanti finds this anticlimactic, “No, I don’t think so.” She picks at her nails and looks up periodically at Kiran, who is staring into his chai. “Come on, Kiran, just say it.” She reaches over and rubs the crease between her eyebrows with her thumb.
“I’m fine. Leave it,” he says it a little more harshly than he intended. He doesn’t want to hurt her. “So, Reena called me while I was driving. I haven’t spoken to her in months.” He says this quickly, without looking at Shanti, and takes a big breath before he starts talking again, “She wants us to come to her new house for dinner. Both of us.” Kiran’s body is stiff; he’s like some impenetrable substance that could save the world from nuclear disaster.
Shanti flares her nostrils. She presses her palms together, but she really wants to reach out to Kiran. So she says, “Sure, if that’s what you want to do.” She watches him for a reaction, hoping for even a slight blush on his cheeks.
“Sure. Fine. I don’t understand why you insist on seeing her, but I’ll go with you.”
“Okay. Um, good.”
“I’m going to help Amma with the subzi. ” She walks away, coolly. Although Shanti would rather watch a cockaroach climb into the bathtub than see Reena, maybe it would give her the push she needs to tell Kiran about the baby. She’d been practicing: while tapping out the beats for her bharatanatym students, Shanti would imagine sitting in front of Kiran explaining herself, she would visualize the words while driving, while brushing her hair before bed, and while her fingers were intertwined with Kiran’s at the movie theater. First she’d tell him that she wasn’t ready. Then she’d mention that they weren’t ready as a couple. Depending on his answers, she’d talk about the hospital visit. The words would come easily because they were always on her lips.
Kiran never expected Shanti to be so still, so calm. She’s always moving, big loud movements, which forced him to draw back and watch her khol lined eyes perform her thoughts. Her quick response, without even a twitch, leaves him aching in confusion. He wonders if it would have been appropriate to embrace her. He decides that he should have. He starts to get up, but catches his reflection in the window and suddenly feels betrayed. Through the glass, his face is possessed by the orange dusk and an unbroken smile.
Reena was a bright spot in Kiran’s difficult childhood. Images of her gap teeth and their summer schemes are swept into memories, tied together with certainty. When Kiran was fifteen, his father died and his mother left most of the family responsibilities to his hardheaded brother, Arun. Through those long years, he was dependent on Reena. After the death of an immediate family member, traditional homes abstain from celebrations of any kind for a year. A birthday was marked with a pat on the head, weddings were rescheduled, and during festivals like Dasara and Diwali the familiy stayed indoors in mourning. The year after his father’s death, Reena sacrificed Dasara and kept Kiran’s mother company. They even embroidered a sari together, although Reena was not the type of girl to sit quietly holding a needle and a thread. Her hands were big and calloused.
“Reena is such a savior,” Kiran’s mother admitted to her son. Kiran was surprised. His mother was always criticizing Reena (“What is she doing – wearing short pants? She should wear a nice pavada.”) and Kiran was always defending her. Seeing them together almost made the loss of his father easier to bear. After a plain dinner of rice and lentils, Kiran and Reena were sitting in the living room. Reena was tuning the radio and Kiran was drawing and they could hear their neighbors celebrating in the streets. Every Dasara, the temple built a twenty-foot effigy of Ravan – the ten-headed demon of the Ramayana. Kiran guessed from the screams outside that his neighbors were just starting to burn down the gruesome figure.
Kiran put his pencil on the ground, “Reena, you should go.”
“Because you’re missing out, At least go eat some gulab jamun and come back,” he said.
“No,” she brought her knees to her chest and Kiran could see her anklets, flat and silver, caressing her feet. “I don’t want to go. It’s my choice. Plus, if I leave you’ll just go sit in your room and never come out.”
Kiran picked his pencil and darkened the lines of his drawing.
“Anyway you can pay me back for missing Dasara this year,” she said. “We’ll be even if we build that Ravan that you and your dad planned together.”
“It’ll be too hard to do it without my dad – I’ve never built something that large alone before.”
“We’ll figure it out. And it’ll be so good – I’m sure that the temple will let you design it every year. Anyway, if we don’t do it, you’ll have to do my Hindi homework for a year. Promise?”
“Fine,” Kiran said. Reena smiled and stretched her legs, comfortable with her victory. Kiran looked up for his drawing and smiled back. She slid closer to him and he turned his profile to her, trembling a little. She leaned over and, with one hand pressed against his thigh, kissed him. He enjoyed the momentary strangeness of her mouth and the subtle smell of jasmine in her hair. He had never been so close to her, but she pulled away after a few seconds, leaving him red-faced and guessing.
“Do you want more?” Shanti asks, pointing to the rice.
“No, I’m fine. It’s good.” They sit in strained silence, until Shanti’s mother starts grilling her daughter about the upcoming dance performance. They talk about dresses, and staging, and how the tabla player has an attitude problem. But, it’s quiet again once Shanti’s parents go back downstairs after dinner. “Do you want me to do the dishes?” Kiran asks.
“You don’t have to go out of your way to be nice. I already said yes about Reena,” Shanti snaps.
“I just want to help.”
“Fine. Do the dishes.” Who says that she can’t get some benefits from this awful situation? Shanti leaves a dishtowel on the table and walks into the bedroom. She watches the fan spin on the ceiling as she lies in bed. She’s grateful that her mother didn’t take dinner as an opportunity to nag her about grandchildren. It’s important to acknowledge the small day-to-day blessings, she thinks to herself.
Earlier in their marriage, Kiran would have never let her go to bed alone. He would press her legs before she fell asleep, intrigued by the scars on her feet. Kiran says that he loved her the moment he saw her on stage. They met at one of Reena’s fundraisers, where Shanti was dancing and Kiran was designing the sets. The night before her performance, Shanti left her anklets in the dressing room. She was worried that they would be misplaced before her performance. Walking through the back doors of the auditorium, she was surprised to hear the familiar jingle of Radio Indigo. Kiran was crouching on the floor by the door, stringing together mirrored round pieces and attaching them to a wooden frame. He was humming softly to himself, but stopped when he heard Shanti walk in.
“Oh—I left something in the dressing room,” she said. Tools, large slabs of wood, and two rolls of purple and red fabric covered the floor. “Is everything okay?”
Kiran looked up from his work “Yeah, hey, don’t worry,” he stood next to her, “I know, I know – it all looks kind of messy, but I’m almost done.”
“The performance is tomorrow,” Shanti said, her eyes wide.
“Well after watching the dress rehearsal I had a better idea,” Kiran shrugged, “Don’t worry, I promise everything will be set for tomorrow.” Shanti leaned forward and pressed her fingers on the mirrored surface. “I’m going to drape it around those pillars,” he pointed to them.
“I’m trusting you,” she said.
When she watched the video of the performance the next evening, she noticed how the mirrored backdrop highlighted her movements; she couldn’t help but feel like he had created something exclusively for her. She didn’t even know his name, but recognized him instantly weeks later at her performance at the Palace Grounds. He waited for her by the back entrance, his head thrown back, releasing a puff of cigarette smoke in the air. He congratulated her and told her that he wanted to take her to dinner.
Shanti alternates between tightening and relaxing her muscles. This is how Kiran lives, she thinks—obsessively working and then sitting on the couch searching for something that inspires him. Outside, the street dogs are fighting and Shanti gets up to close the window.
Kiran’s arms are covered with soapsuds, his shirt is damp, and a small puddle of water grows outside the sink. The dishes are clean and put away. He wishes he could avoid the bedroom and Shanti’s silence, but ends up in bed with his computer on his lap. Shanti, under the covers, reads a magazine.
“Did you hear those dogs before?” he asks. “Shanti. Come on, ignoring me won’t make tomorrow easier.”
“Why do you so desperately want to see her?” She looks into her magazine.
“Why can’t you understand that she’s a childhood friend? You’re jealous of her because of some fabricated scenario,” he takes off his glasses and shuts his computer. “Nothing has ever happened between us, and nothing ever will.”
Shanti sits up as if his presence repulses her, and spits out, “I don’t want to sit there uselessly while you reminisce. It’s so annoying.“ Kiran doesn’t respond, because he doesn’t want to acknowledge the strange magnetism that surrounds Reena.
Shanti switches off the light and turns to her side, so her back is to Kiran. She’s disappointed by her own words, which only approximate what she really wants to say.
A month ago, Shanti slept with her hand resting on her stomach. Her friends convinced her to take a pregnancy test and afterwards, she curled deeper into the mattress, trying to imagine her life with a child. She was waiting for the right moment to tell Kiran, who had been at the office until two a.m. for the past week. When he got home, he was too tired to talk and she left for rehearsals or classes early in the morning. When they did talk (on the phone), Kiran was preoccupied. That morning, she called him after a reading the Art and Style section in The Times of India—a former student (and a rising star in the classical dance scene) insulted Shanti’s choreography in the paper. Hurt and worried, she ranted to Kiran:
“After everything I did for her—what are people going to–”
“People will forget about it. Stop worrying,” he replied, cutting her off. She could hear chatter in the background. “I have to go–I’ll be home late. Don’t wait up for me.”
Shanti woke up when she heard Kiran’s ringtone echo through the house. She looked at the clock on the bedside table, groaned, and pulled the light sheet over her shoulders. She heard him take off his shoes. He opened the bedroom door, holding the phone to his ear with his shoulder. “Ek minute,” he whispered. He walked over to Shanti, while unbuttoning his shirt. He kissed her on her forehead and left his shirt on the floor. Shanti opened one eye and watched him turn into the master bathroom.
She felt juvenile, but once the lock clicked, she kneeled in front of the door and pressed her ear against the wood. At first she could only hear water rushing from the sink, but soon she could make out Kiran’s high-pitched laugh. He was always embarrassed by his laugh—he thought it wasn’t masculine and he usually disguised it as a cough. “Reena—stop. I know you don’t mean that.”
Reena. Shanti leaned closer to the door with a sigh.
“No, it’s okay to be upset. You should let yourself be upset, but it shouldn’t stop you from going…I know…You don’t have to thank me – when you say stuff like that you sound too American…I’m here for you, Ree.”
Shanti had heard enough. She slid into bed, but when she closed her eyes she imagined some murky tar creeping through her stomach. I’m here for you. Kiran never spoke to her with such tenderness. He was distant, except when he comforted her by bringing her hands to his chest and wrapping his around her waist. She didn’t want to admit it, but his voice sounded like someone she didn’t recognize; he sounded vulnerable, even from the other side of the bathroom door. Shanti traced her stomach with her finger, while Kiran climbed into bed.
Shanti parks the car and the watchman opens the gate to Reena’s apartment complex. The wails from the mosque fill the sky.
“Be careful – it’s muddy,” Kiran says. It was raining all morning, but it’s finally starting to clear up; a maid watches them from the roof, hanging clothes from a silver wire.
“I’m fine,” Shanti responds, reaching for Kiran’s hand. Reena lives on the fifth floor and they take the elevator up, still holding hands. Shanti notices the lilies by the door, placed in an orange terracotta pot. Kiran rings the doorbell and Reena opens it almost instantly. Her hair is a mix of dreadlocks and braids, piled on top of her head and pushed back with a thick-jeweled headband. She’s wearing a crisp white linen shirt and dark blue jeans. Shanti stares at her, evaluating her beauty.
“Come in!” she says. Shanti enters first and slips off her sandals. Kiran hands Reena a box of sweets and does the same. “Thanks, guys. I always crave J.B bakery pineapple cake when I’m abroad. Let me put this in the fridge.” Reena’s house is filled with flowers, pots are placed on the stacks of books on the floor, vines curl around the two marble elephants, and two hyacinths stand in front of a turquoise wall.
“Who made these?” Kiran calls out to Reena. He’s standing infront of two large framed wood cut prints. Shanti sits on the white couch and fiddles with her dupatta, curling and scrunching the edges in her fist.
“Surprisingly,” Reena responds, placing a tray of mixture and tea on the table, “my brother.”
“What? Seriously?” Kirans exclaims. “They’re so good. When did he start doing prints?”
“After his divorce,” she sips on her tea.
“Oh, that’s terrible.” Shanti interjects.
“That’s not the worst of it. He left his practice, left his family, ignored me – except for sending me those prints. I was in America trying to talk some sense into him.”
“Well, you know I’ve tried calling him,” Kiran says, “he didn’t pick up.”
“I’m not surprised.”
Shanti continues dissecting Reena’s appearance and finally admits that despite her long face and dark skin, she’s beautiful. Her face is rare, Shanti thinks, a strange combination of features that didn’t let you look away.
“How are the children taking it? He has two sons right?” Shanti says.
“Not well. They’ve just been playing video games.”
“I’m sure everyone appreciated you being there – especially, with your business just taking off and everything,” It looks like Kiran is going to squeeze Reena’s hand. Shanti relaxes when she sees him hand her a cigarette instead. He offers Shanti one as well, but she shakes her head.
“Shanti, I thought you smoked?” Reena turns to her.
“Well, I picked it up from Kiran,” she rolls her eyes, “And I still do once in a while. But, well, it isn’t healthy. And it always looks odd when I’m dressed in my costume and make up and sneaking outside to smoke before a performance. So, I’m cutting back.”
Reena laughs while Kiran lights the cigarette for her, “That’s a great image.”
Kiran leans back on the couch and smiles. Shanti watches him, his long arms spread out, his shoulders slouched and rolled forward. “So, Shanti any performances coming up?”
“I have one next month,” she says.
“I’m surprised you’re not in Shekar’s dance drama! You seem perfect for it!” Kiran interrupts, “Shanti and I are going to Thailand that weekend – I have to check out a site.”
“Oh, that’s really too bad,” Reena says, glancing at Shanti.
“I like it when she comes with me,” Kiran says.
“But, still. Performing in Shekar’s company – it’s a great step for any dancer. He always gets me the best people from the South for fundraisers. Do you think you’ll dance after you have a baby?”
“Reena,” Shanti exclaims, “I’m not even pregnant.” Her face is red from embarrassment and shame.
Kiran cuts her off, “Shanti’s mother danced and choreographed well into her sixties.”
Shanti swings her thick braid off her shoulder. She feels herself disappearing into the couch, the dark maroon cushions seeping into her skin. She thinks of the baby that she let slip from her body, a mass of cells dissolving into space. Reena sits with her back straight, surrounded by her art, flowers, and fancy furniture and Shanti looks into the hallway. “There’s three more rooms through there,” Reena says when she catches Shanti’s eye. Shanti nods. In her home there are no artistic prints, just pictures from her wedding. The sounds of her mother arguing with the maid are constant and sheet music and sketches cover the table. Reena’s house might be clean, but she lives alone Shanti reminds herself.
“I love how you’ve decorated this place. It’s so different.” Shanti says.
“Thanks – I wish you were here for the house warming. It was much cleaner then. Anyway, it’s sad because I don’t get to spend too much time in it.”
“Where are you most of the time?” Kiran asks, “Delhi?”
“Yeah.” She puts down her tea cup, “Do you remember when we went to Agra after graduation?”
“I don’t know if I remembered that trip while I was on it.”
“Shanti, Kiran had some bad habits back then,” Reena says, giggling.
“Don’t think anything has changed,” Shanti scoffs.
Kiran laughs and looks towards the window, reminiscing about the trip. He can’t imagine being so young, always dreaming of the future. He doesn’t do that much now—he’s much more comfortable slipping into the past. With his eyes almost closed he pictures walking with Reena back to the hotel in Agra after a moonlit tour of the Taj Mahal. They had lost their college group half an hour ago and Kiran thought he would hold on to the night forever. It would be a story they would tell at their wedding and later to their children. He tried to memorize every detail of the night—the deep purple shading around the clouds and the texture of the cement on the walkway. Kiran put his jacket on the ground and they sat together. It was cold enough that the goosebumps on Reena’s waist were visible. When she looked at him, with her dark brown eyes and relentless smile, he felt that she knew him from the inside. She was the one who let him restrain his tears with swallows when his mother died and she left him undisturbed in the studio to weep an hour later. As they lay side by side on his jacket, bare feet pointing to the horizon, her body gave him a feeling of comfort. He turned towards her and with a surge of confidence and a release of air said, “Marry me?”
“Kiran,” she replied, sitting up. She put her hand on his and shook her head.
And when he looked at her then, a face that he swore he could draw in his sleep, he noticed a mole by her nose that he had never seen before.
With Shanti, Kiran proposed at a dinner after receiving her parents’ blessing. He knew what to expect—they would have an engagement party at his inlaws’s house and Shanti’s friends would sing karaoke. At the party, Kiran was shuffled from introduction to introduction. He even spent thirty-five minutes talking to Shanti’s enormous second cousin, Renuka, about redesigning her kitchen. When they finally had a moment alone and Kiran kissed Shanti’s neck.
“I know it’s overwhelming meeting everyone,” she whispered, turning to him, “especially Renuka. She’s just too much.”
“I could tell,” he smiled. “I like having a full house again.”
“Are you guys ready to eat? I have some big news for you,” Reena says, bringing Kiran back to the present. They follow her into the dining room. The table is already set with three round black plates and steel glasses. The steam from the rice rises and Shanti removes her dupatta and places it in the seat to her left. “Help yourselves,” Reena says. Kiran rolls up his cuffs before reaching for an idli, puffed to perfection. While drenching the idli with sambar, Kiran describes a superstitious family who are redoing their kitchen. Reena laughs at the right places, but Shanti quietly eats her idli. Kiran smiles as he talks, animated in a way that she hasn’t seen since their engagement party.
“Shanti, are you alright?” Reena asks.
“Oh – yes. Yes, I am just trying to decide if I want another idli.”
“Try the molga poodi with it” Reena passes a silver bowl across the table.
“I read the article about you, you know,” Shanti says. Her mouth hurts from the plastered smile on her face. Her throat hurts too, maybe she’s getting sick.
“It’s a brilliant idea,” Kiran adds.
“Thanks, guys. You have to come and see the school. Kiran! You can even be a driving instructor.” Reena’s organization takes women from the Delhi slums and teaches them how to drive cabs and navigate the streets. The all female cab service picks up women throughout the city reducing incidents of rape, while providing women a way to support themselves and their families.
“Kiran! A driving instructor?” Shanti smirks.
“I can’t believe how much the company has grown. I don’t know what to do with myself sometimes—I don’t have to do everything alone anymore. We even have interns!” Reena says.
“What are the women like?” Kiran asks.
“So many stories. It’s unbelievable and they inspire me to go after what I want,” she laughs, “I was supposed to empower them, but all of them are so driven. No pun intended.”
“They sound like you,” Kiran says.
Listening to their happy chatter, Shanti feels her stomach tighten. She smiles with her mouth closed, her lips almost pouting, “No, it’s different. I was so focused on the company for a while that I didn’t know what I wanted. It’s easy to let one thing take over.” The corners of her mouth relax, “Actually, this is the perfect transition for my news. Getting the organization off the ground…I think I’m finally ready to get my personal life in order.” After a pause she smiles, “I’m in the process right now. I’m going to adopt a baby girl.”
“What? Congratulations,” Kiran immediately stands up and pulls Reena into his arms.
“You’re family, the most I have right now, and I want you–both of you,” she glances at Shanti, “to be in the baby’s life.”
“Yes, congratulations.” Shanti is quiet, but she reaches for Reena’s arm from her seat.
Kiran drives back and Shanti rests her head against the window. There’s a dull gnawing pain in her neck.
“See, that wasn’t bad at all. I told you not to worry,” Kiran puts his hand on her knee. “Reena, a mother. I guess she never found anyone who could keep up with her. She will though, I don’t doubt that. She just does things on her own terms. She’s great, isn’t she? My oldest friend.”
“Mhmm,” Shanti mutters.
At the stoplight he asks, “When are we going to start a family, Shanti?”
Shanti sits up, but she can’t bring herself to tell him that the baby was there one day and then disappeared. She doesn’t tell him about the doctor’s visit or about how her sister waited in the parking lot. She doesn’t tell him how relieved she felt sitting in the car, a blanket spread around her legs. She just looks at him, dissecting him just as she did with Reena earlier in the evening. She stares past his curly hair and the wrinkles forming in the corners of his eyes. .
“Not yet,” she says.
“How much longer do you want to wait?”
“I don’t know.”
“Fine, we won’t talk about.” Kiran turns on the radio. Sonu Nigam’s voice fills the car and Shanti’s bangles clank together when she turns the dial to lower the volume. “I don’t mean to push you, you know,” he says. “But, promise me we’ll actually talk about it,” He turns to her, “Are you alright?”
“I promise we’ll talk about it later, okay? Don’t feel well right now.” She groans.
“Okay. Let me open the window. You look like you need some air.”
Shanti heads straight to the bedroom when they arrive home. She gets into bed without changing her clothes, even though she knows that her bangles get caught in her hair. She does not pull the covers over her body, but spreads her fingers over the quilt with her eyes closed.
Kiran sits in the living room after pouring himself a glass of red wine. He knows he has emails to answer and phone calls to return, but he makes no effort to move towards his computer. The smells of her house cling to his sweater – the flowers, the spices of the sambhar, the shared cigarettes. He takes if off, balls it up, and throws it on the sofa. Between sips of his wine, he looks through his personal sketchbook. There are dozens of drawings of chairs, designs for Shanti’s birthday present. She wants new seating for the kitchen counter. She was jealous of Reena’s apartment, he knows that much. Kiran never has time to finish the renovation projects in their house, so the place looks cluttered—not like some artistic paradise Shanti probably envisioned when they got married. He has disappointed her. He knows that, too. He starts drawing a chair, curving the arm support. Shanti is accommodating, he thinks, she wants to do everything for him. Or at least she used to. He remembers how she used to stay up with him while he worked. The way they discussed projects over dinner, letting the food grow cold as they let themselves get swept up in each other’s dreams. With Reena, he never knew where he stood. For years, she would cancel dates last minute. She would disappear for months and she expected him to drive her everywhere, to help with all her fundraising without getting paid, to water her plants.
A baby would bring some life back into his house and back into his relationship with Shanti. He stops drawing because the sketch is too ornate; Shanti wouldn’t like it. He fills a glass of water and grabs a bottle of aspirin from the cabinet before going to the bedroom. Even though the lights are off and she isn’t moving, he can tell she’s awake.
“Shanti, I got you some water.” He puts it on the table and sits on her side of the bed, cradling her. She puts her head under his neck and one arm on his stomach. “Are you feeling better?”
“A little,” she whispers. “Come to bed.”
“Take this first.” He hands her the water and the medicine. She scrunches her face when she swallows it and then looks at him in a way that makes him feel so far away. It filters the night with the vibration of anxiety; a buzzing that blocks the howls of the street dogs and the night traffic. He reaches for her, hoping that touching her will bring him back to their dark bedroom. She slides her hands into his t-shirt and presses against him. She inhales, her mouth parallel to his, and then she kisses him. He has one hand in her hair.
“Kiran,” she says. Her voice is hoarse and serious.
“Yeah,” he replies, his eyes are still closed from their kiss and his hands are undoing the back buttons of her salwar.
“I can’t believe Reena’s adopting a baby.”
“Really? Now?” Kiran says. He sits up, frustrated. Shanti sits up too, her back against the headboard and facing him. Her salwar hangs lose around her shoulders.
“How can she just decide she wants a child? Just like that? Shouldn’t there be a plan?”
“Reena doesn’t work like that.”
“She’s always floating around, changing her mind, doing this and doing that and still, she always gets everything she wants.”
Kiran rolls his eyes. “Not this again.”
“Kiran, I want to dance in Shekar’s performance. I’m going to call him about auditioning tomorrow.”
If Kiran is shocked, he tries to hide it. “I can’t postpone this trip, Shants.”
“Well, then I can’t come.”
Kiran can’t sleep. The dogs are quiet and the ceiling fan just pushes the air in circles. Shanti’s arm sticks to his, sweat covered and clammy. She sleeps diagonally sometimes, but he usually hogs the covers. Tonight, though, they only share a thin cotton sheet. Kiran thinks about babies. He has only really been around two his entire life. One was his nephew, born with an afro and big quiet eyes and the other was Pinky, the neighbor’s daughter. He liked how important he felt holding them in his arms. He liked the way they trusted him. When his nephew sneezed, Kiran noticed they looked alike.
Sometimes, he imagines going into the Coffee Day on the corner and telling his favorite barista that he’s going to be a father. If she got pregnant, he would press Shanti’s legs every night. They would probably swell up from the baby weight.
Once, on a night like this when they were first dating, Shanti told him that she felt guilty about feeling lonely. That she has a great family, a wonderful boyfriend, good friends, but she still feels alone. Kiran told her that once they started a family, those feelings would go away. It dawns on him then, in bed next to her, blanketed in sweat, that he’s never asked her about it.
Once, on a night like this when he was still sharing Reena’s small single bed, she told him that he was selfish. She said it while looking at the ceiling. She was naked and smoking a cigarette. He reminded her that he dealt with her chronic lateness and her time consuming projects, even after she rejected his proposal. He was so loud that the downstairs neighbor hit the ceiling with a broom. He thought that only happened in the movies.
When he can feel the sun rising, he gets out of bed, stirring Shanti awake. “Where are you going?” she mumbles.
“A drive.” He picks up his jeans from the floor. “Do you want to come?”
“Okay.” She grabs her glasses from the nightstand and follows him outside.
There are few early morning joggers—men circling the park before they have to go to work. They drive past the vegetable sellers, eagerly pushing carts of spinach and eggplant up the streets. At the intersection Shanti says, “I think we should make a left here.”
“Your wish is my command. Are we going anywhere special?”
“Maybe to that dosa place we went to when your cousin was here. Are you hungry?”
“Okay. I doubt it’s open, though,” he responds, reluctantly. He’s unsure of Shanti’s mood. Last night’s argument covers their excursion, mixing with the morning fog.
“We could wait there.” They drive the rest of the way with the windows down, filling the car with bird calls and the early morning chill. When they pass the IIS campus, Shanti makes Kiran pull over to get chai. They stand in the canteen (which is a little bit more than a table with an awning), a steel cup warming their fingers.
“It’s going to be so humid by noon. I’m glad we got to catch this cold air.” He takes her hand.
“Are you upset with me about Thailand?” She watches a boy, probably a freshman, unlock his bike and ride towards the library.
“I don’t know,” Kiran replies. “I’m surprised. But, if that’s what you want to do—what can I say? No?” They leave their cups and some change on the table. Shanti smiles at the man behind the counter. He’s dressed in white and wearing a small Nehru cap.
“Thank you,” Shanti says. She squeezes Kiran’s hand
“Let’s go eat some dosa.”
They are the first people in the restaurant and they sit by the window. Bangalore unfurls before them. The city is finally awake: autos are packed with school children, uniforms pressed and socks pulled up to the knees. Kiran looks at them curiously, surprised that he’s imagining the feeling of taking his own child to school.
“Shanti, you’d be a great mom, you know? We should try harder. When I get back from my trip and after your performance.”
“You have to be at home for us to try,” She bites the straw of her mosumbi juice.
Kiran ignores her. “What color was your uniform when you were growing up?”
“Grey and white and on Wednesdays we wore denim skirts and polos with our house color. I was green.”
“I was in yellow house,” he responds.
“Yellow yellow dirty fellow.”
“Green green beauty queen.”
Shanti makes a promise to herself and the sounds of traffic: she would to make it up to Kiran. She closes her eyes and plans a future where a simple breakfast does not remind of her insecurities, regrets, and secrets.
Shanti decides to walk home after her dance class. Her afternoon lesson is a group of lanky ten year olds, all limbs and bones. She spent the class starting to teach them about abhinaya, facial and bodily expressions used to act out scenes from mythology or gesticulate the lyrics of a song. The girls sat around her as she curled her lip upwards and squinted her eyes to capture the look of a rakshasa, or demon. They started to laugh, but soon were focused on squeezing their brows together, trying to produce a face both frightening and crude. Shanti knows it’s difficult for them. Good abhinaya comes from life experience and the special ability to elicit the memory at will. It also comes from being observant, cataloguing the ways people walk or how they stand. Payal, the class troublemaker surprised her this afternoon. They were learning a piece where Lord Karthikeya slays a demon, hitting him with such force that the rakshasa’s body splits in two. In the mythology, Kartikeya, decides to transform one side of the demon’s body into a peacock and the other into a rooster. When Payal stopped turning in the middle of the room during practice, the girl radiated the confidence and goodness of Karthikeya. She held her shoulders back and raised her chin slightly. Unlike the other girls in class, who looked manic or angry, Payal’s smile was thoughtful when she slammed her fists to kill the invisible demon.
Shanti and Kiran once watched a documentary about microexpressions. They were also watching Indian Idol, but Kiran switched to the documentary during the commercial breaks. The documentary fascinated her, because she realized that she had been thinking about these small facial ticks her entire life. A dancer needs to understand how to use all the muscles in her face if she wants to deepen her abhinaya. She needs to imagine a character’s subconscious and bring it to the audience with eye movements, smiles, and raised eyebrows. The documentary focused on using microexpressions to distinguish truths from lies. Shanti never thought of them that way—emotion is complicated. A facial expression is not enough to comprehend an entire situation. Could an audience member figure out the story without the music, the body movements, and the mythology? However, after watching, Shanti found herself doing just that. She was obsessed with trying to decipher Kiran’s feelings about her. It was easy to compare his face when he was with Reena to the looks he gave her at home.
Shanti keeps walking until the bumpy sidewalk gives way to the street. She looks around, laughing when she realizes that she’s passed the turn to her house. She decides to keep walking and follows two older women in front of her. They look like peacocks: one woman’s sari is bright blue and her friend’s is green. They are graceful, maneuvering around the potholes and manure without ever looking at the ground. To her left, an auto driver leans against his vehicle, his brown uniform fraying at the edges. When he catches Shanti looking at him, he points to the auto. “Ma’am Ma’am,” he calls to her. She shakes her head. The sidewalk starts again and Shanti walks faster, passing the peacock women, a crowd of men eating biryani on leaf plates, and a young girl wearing a bright red dress screaming outside of Food World. She soon realizes that she’s walking towards Cubbon Park. She stops in front of a clothing store, wondering if she should turn back and walk home. Kiran won’t be back for a few hours, she thinks, scrutinizing the newest film posters lining the façade of the store. She continues to the park, pushing her way through the commotion of shoppers. Some are huddled under the awnings to fight the heat.
Shanti enjoys the disorder of the crowds; she actually feels a certain sense of relief listening to the crisscrossed conversations of the masses.
At the park, she passes the students playing hand games by the rocks and the teens skipping class to steal kisses. She pokes through her purse and gives a hijra all her change. She makes a left at the fountain and follows the dirt path to the old amusement park. The park had a few rides: a roller coaster, a twirl a whirl, and a set of bumper cars. The metal is rusty and the paint is chipping, raining flakes of orange and turquoise with the wind. It is a relic from the past, now over shadowed by the WonderLa amusement park a few minutes away. This amusement park is now closed to the public; five years ago, a young girl fell from the rollercoaster to her instant death. The papers were obsessed with the story and Shanti found little blurbs about the girl’s parents months after the accident. Since then, the government has built a metal gate around it. When she walks here with Kiran, he always wonders why they don’t knock it down and build a new playground or fountain in its place. Shanti likes it—it’s spooky and dusty, but beautiful. It’s the quietest place in all of Bangalore and a perfect location to be alone. Shanti likes to think that the amusement part as a graveyard for the dead children of the city. She sits on the grass, imagining them floating over the fence and playing with her hair. Maybe her child is with them.
She looks up, “Reena? God, you really scared me!”
Reena laughs, “You should’ve seen your face, yaar. Hey, don’t get up.” She removes the scarf looped around her jeans and throws it on ground before sitting down. “You know, I remember riding these rides when I was in school.”
“You’re lucky nothing happened to you,” Shanti responds.
“They never updated the rides or took care of them. The place was a free for all—it was bound to happen. But, it looks kind of pretty in the day, right? With the light and the shadows?”
“It does. It’s really lovely.” She adds, “Kiran thinks they should turn it into a fountain.”
“I’m not surprised,” Reena says, lighting a cigarette.
“What are you doing here? Do you have a fundraiser in the park?”
“Nah, just walking. I needed to clear my head.”
To anyone at the park, Reena and Shanti would look like old friends or even sisters with their matching fishtail braids. Of course Reena would be here, Shanti thinks, stealing my last place of sanctuary in the city. She debates leaving and taking an auto back home, but Reena looks so different without Kiran’s gaze framing her. Her jeans are baggy, she’s wearing a faded black and beige kurta and flip flops. She has a bit of dust on her face and Shanti spies a few grays curling around her ear.
“Worried about the baby?” Shanti asks.
“Of course!” Reena says, “I’m doing this alone, Shants.” She curls her legs to her chest. A flock of spotted doves circle them once before settling between the branches.
Shanti bites her thumbnail before reaching over to rub Reena’s back, “It will all be fine. You will always have help, here or in Delhi.”
“I hope so, for the baby’s sake,” She smiles at Shanti, “I guess I’m having an off day. Sorry.” She finishes her cigarette in silence, watching the play of light against the aluminum decorations on the bumper cars. Shanti does not want to disturb the moment; worried that doing so would lead to unanticipated tears. “What’s going on with you?”
Shanti replies in a calm and even voice, “Just walking home after my dance lesson.”
“How old are the girls?”
“Between nine and ten.”
“I don’t remember being like that, do you? What did we think about?”
“The future?” Shanti leans back and closes her eyes; the sun warms her face.
They sit together, enveloped in their solitude, watching the flimsy rides move with the wind.
Veda Kumarjiguda is a dreamer, schemer and rush hour warrior. She thinks the subway is the best place to get inspired.
Pictures from Chaos Theory performance.