Nanditha Ram is an In Read more [...]
Short Story Category: 10 Minutes
The daffodils in the garden are in full bloom. Nafisa is looking at them through her window with that wistful look, as though a longing has filled her heart. In the opposite house Solomon is working the ground, tilling the dirt, preparing the beds for the growing season. His ginger cat, a rusty old girl named Gulmohar, is sitting next to the would-be lettuce bed, licking herself clean. Solomon has an unkempt beard and a mop of red hair that has been dyed blonde in the centre. He whistles a tune to keep himself amused while working. His pale brown singlet would have previously been a roaring rust but the sun has worn it down. Solomon himself is a bit like that – a once vigorous husky now reduced by life to measly proportions by comparison, whistling muted melodies. Altogether he looks shabby, yet this is what appeals most because he seems to be substantiating a rebellious standpoint through his careless lack of inclination to be neat. This presumed rebelliousness of his is very attractive.
Nafisa watches with interest. She wonders what tragedies in life have made him the man he is today. She has grown accustomed to assessing evolution as a human being solely on the basis of tragedies. And she has had her fair share of them. She wishes she could find out from him what events have built his heart. The huge bay window to his house is exposed by the drawn-back curtains, revealing pieces of Solomon’s life. Nafisa’s interest is piqued. She squints into the broad daylight and when her eyes have adjusted she looks beyond and into the relative darkness that is his living room. She tries to make a mental collage of his life with what little is revealed, although it is nothing revealing.
Solomon looks up and their eyes meet. She waves and he waves back – a communication which means everything to her, but alas, nothing to him. It is a natural, almost mechanical reaction to her friendliness. As for her it is a lifeline.
Nafisa sits day after day by the window looking at the world outside with a dreaded sense that she will never be a part of it. Most days all she sees is Solomon and Gulmohar and so they become the world to her.
Today Solomon’s curtain is drawn shut, and she can’t see anything. She quietly sobs into her night gown. She feels cheated. Bitterly so. But life has to go on. She waits patiently for the next time when the curtain will be drawn open and hopes that it will be soon. The next day she comes to the window as soon as she wakes up. Suma, Nafisa’s cook and caretaker, brings her a steaming hot cup of cardamom tea. She has long since given up trying to understand her mistress’s obsession with the window, but she sympathises. She can’t imagine what it must feel like to be housebound in that way.
When Nafisa looks out into Solomon’s yard this time, she is not happy. A woman gets out of her car with a bag of groceries in one hand and a bunch of daffodils in the other. Solomon comes to greet her. They hug for a long time, even though her hands are full, and he gives her a sumptuous kiss on the lips. They go into the house and she plonks all that she’s holding on the kitchen island. He holds her and draws her close. They kiss again. By now Nafisa is a wreck. She doesn’t understand it. she has been looking into that window for months now and there has never been any sign of another human, let alone a woman and a possible lover at that. She resents it.
She looks away for a brief moment and wipes a tear. She draws even closer to the window, as though that will give her more insight into what is going on as she tries to make sense of his life. It has become indispensable to her, all the more now because of the appearance of this mystery woman that Solomon seems to be besotted by.
It is already noon. Suma comes in with lunch: a thaali with rotis and three different kinds of subzi, even some dahi to cool the palate and Suma’s choice preparation, tamarind rice. Nafisa eats absently and Suma watches. She hasn’t moved from that spot since she brought her tea this morning.
She shakes her head in despair and leaves the room.
The spring sun is setting and the cool evening mountain breeze drifts into the chamber. Nafisa sketches what she sees outside in the orange light of dusk. She can hear the plaintive call of the Koel getting ready to fly home. She sketches that too. She has meticulously recorded in images her impressions of dusk in several drawing books over the years. This is her version of a journal. She suddenly sits up and smiles wickedly to herself. She decides to start drawing Solomon’s life as she sees it. She will call it ‘documenting’ just to take the edge off the word ‘voyeurism’. She deceives herself that she is merely telling the story of someone’s life in images as she sees it happening. She is not prying. No, not at all. And so she starts putting down the details from the moment of the kiss. Her drawings of the woman are grotesque but images of Solomon are quite beatific. The cat is not considered one of the protagonists and frequently gets left out of the drawings.
The next day, Nafisa is promptly by the window as soon as she wakes up. She sees the naked body of the woman drinking water at the sink. The woman is lean and muscular with perfect looking limbs. She particularly envies those limbs. She has a tattoo on her right shoulder blade of what appears to be a butterfly. She raises her gaunt shoulders towards her ears and drops them, then moves her neck from side to side with her fingers pressed into the nape. Nafisa imagines her neck and spine clicking into place. She draws an elaborate diagram of vertebrae and colours it in black and white, a superb sketch unto itself. She watches the woman hunch a little towards the sink and tries to imagine what her thought process must be at that very moment. Nafisa imagines an expression to match. She quickly sketches it. Then she sees Solomon walking up behind her, naked and drawing her close to him, her back against his loins. She sketches that too. Nafisa’s mood changes to gleeful vengeance, with shades of guilt here and there, and it makes for especially good drawings. The expressions on the faces she is sketching are all the more telling because, like a needle extracting blood, she is extracting retribution through her depictions.
Suma walks in with tea at that moment. Nafisa closes the notebook in a great hurry to hide what she is doing, but her cheeks acquire a flushed look and the embarrassment in her eyes is obvious. Suma pretends she didn’t notice anything and leaves as quickly as she came in. Nafisa picks up the sketch book again and looks out, ruing the loss of the man she imagines she loves, and his flame-coloured cat.
The doorbell rings and Suma answers. She’s quite surprised by the visitor at the door.
Who is it Suma? Nafisa calls from inside.
Ma, it is the saheb from across the road, she calls back.
Okay, please call him in. Tell him I will be there in a minute. Her heart is thumping. Why has he come to see me?
Suma invites him in but he says that he is in a hurry, will she please hand over this envelope to the lady of the house.
Suma nods and receives the parcel as though she is profoundly deaf.
Nafisa appears in the living room just then.
He asked me to give this to you, Ma, Suma says. The undercurrent of tension in Nafisa’s manner, her anxiousness and trembling hands as she takes the envelope is all very confounding to Suma who doesn’t try to make sense of it. Very abnormal, she thinks.
Nafisa screams when she sees what the envelope contains. It is a wedding invitation. ‘Solomon weds Maya’. Suma comes running back into the living room only to find a card with a gold border on the floor, torn into half. Solomon on one half and Maya on the other half. Not that Suma can read. She picks up the pieces. Burn them! Nafisa screams.
Nafisa decides to go to the wedding. She despises Solomon now. Every now and then spite tailspins into a mad desire for him, even if the overall feeling is one of an all-consuming loathing.
The wedding is two weeks from now. So she hangs a calendar on the wall and begins to count the days by circling off the dates. And she decides to continue sketching what she sees through the window, all the intimate moments from the life of Solomon and Maya. She takes pleasure in putting details into the drawings of Maya that suggest she is an undesirable person. For example, she draws bushy eyebrows that meet in the centre and a grimace for an expression. She seems to never smile. Anyone would think she was an unhappy woman skulking around her lover’s house.
The day of the wedding. Nafisa dresses in her finery. She will face Solomon, the right bastard that he is. She has always been in the opposite window, yet he has never even noticed her. But he came to deliver his wedding invitation? Strange. What was he trying to say by that?
This is the flurry of thoughts she takes with her to the wedding, along with a gift. She has used the most exquisite wrapping for this gift, and a gorgeous blood red ribbon to go with it. She even sticks a card on it and inks the words ‘happy married life’, which is when she realises she hadn’t known his name until she read the invitation. She puts her signature in big bold letters. ‘Do you even know who I am, you son of a bitch?’ she almost writes that too.
The chauffeur brings the car right to her door step and Suma helps her climb in it, while shouting instructions to him on how to help her in and out of the car.
When she arrives at the wedding she is relieved to see Gulmohar. The cat is the only one she recognises there.
In no time at all, Solomon comes with his bride to greet her and is taken aback when he sees her. She tries to hide the rage she feels or it might show through her eyes.
I…I…didn’t know…he stammers when he sees her. He turns around and signs to his bride that this is his neighbour, by way of introduction.
That’s quite alright she replies, embarrassed, averting her resentful gaze. She decides on the spot not to hand him the gift, that diary full of the prying drawings of Solomon’s life she had spent days creating.
Gulmohar looks at her mournfully.
Nafisa cannot explain the quelling of the inner raging bitterness, although she wants to weep. She thinks she likes him all the more now, but without the rancour that disappointment brings. She doesn’t understand it.
She holds out her hand and Solomon takes it. Their eyes meet. Gulmohar jumps onto her lap just then and startles her. Solomon grabs the cat from her lap and whispers, I’m sorry.
She then silently wheels herself away, the gift still on her lap, with Solomon watching her go.
At home, Nafisa goes back to the window, draws the curtains shut, and moves into another room.
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