The Sunday Ritual

story about prejudice

In the Bakshi household, it was always family tradition to drink together on Sunday evenings. When we were kids, Nikhil and I used to sit at the table, orange juice in hand, watching Ma and Papa clink their glasses. We had a guessing game going.

‘Guess what whiskey tastes like?’

Cow piss/Honey/Cough medicine

‘Wine?’

Grape juice/Goat’s blood/Gutter water

‘Vodka?’

Acid/Oil/Lemon juice

Whatever my pick, Nikhil would sound disappointed. ‘Wrong!’ he’d say, putting on a grown-up voice. ‘You’re such a baby, Tara.’

Ma and Papa kept up the Sunday tradition all those years. No matter where Papa was posted – desert, mountain, glitzy metropolis or godforsaken outback – they clinked their glasses as the sun set on the week. Bahadur would bring out the bottles and glasses promptly at 6. Whiskey and soda, gin and tonic, wine, vodka, ice cubes – check, check, check. Bahadur ran our household like a well-oiled machine. Papa’s major domo, Ma’s man Friday, our devoted housekeeper, handyman and cook.

The Sunday in question, Bahadur served us our drinks in the living room. The light outside was fading. A chill crept into the air like a ghost. Ma wrapped a shawl around her shoulders. The burnt orange fabric was the same shade as the autumn leaves fluttering over our driveway.

Papa swigged his whiskey. ‘Cheers, guys,’ he grinned, raising his glass.

Nikhil proposed a toast. He was in a great mood. His internet start-up had caught some bigshot investor’s fancy. There was no way but up for his business from here.

Everybody looked nice and relaxed. Even Rudy, our cat, forever the haughty overlord, purred like a well-fed baby from under the table. This was it. The perfect moment, the perfect occasion to break the news. I took a deep breath, dived in. I’d rehearsed my lines a million times.

‘I’m seeing someone. From work.’

Ma’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. Papa’s grin grew wider.

‘Dating a fellow officer?’ Nikhil teased me. ‘Don’t you guys have a country to run?’

I ignored his snark. Fought the panic bubbling up inside me.

‘We met at the Academy in our training days. At Missouri.’

‘Aw… How romantic!’ Ma sighed.

‘We’re from the same batch…’

‘The Indian Administrative Service – a love story,’ Nikhil joked without smiling.

‘So, what’s his name?’ Papa’s baritone rang out in the air. ‘When do we meet him?’

‘Invite him for lunch, or tea, or dinner,’ Ma smiled, already making mental notes about the menu. ‘Weekend, weekday, any time.’

‘What’s the problem?’ Nikhil asked, mistaking my panic for reluctance. ‘Is he a vampire? A vegan?’

‘Faizal’s not a fussy eater. Feed him anything, he’ll have no complaints.’

‘Faizal?’ Papa’s smile vanished.

‘Faizal Mohammed.’

Ma sat up straight and folded her arms across her chest as if she needed protection from me.

‘He’s from Kashmir,’ I said. ‘His parents live there. No siblings. Poor thing’s an only child.’

Nobody said anything. Nobody moved. My parents and my chatty brother turned to stone.

‘He’s a really nice guy,’ I mumbled, hating myself for sounding defensive. Faizal was the gentlest man I knew. He could calm down an angry mob anytime, keep his cool even when he was faulted for no mistake of his own. He loved to quote Shakespeare and Faiz and Neruda and Dickinson. Recite verse after verse from memory.

Nikhil snapped out of his trance. ‘You’re dating him. It’s not like you’re getting married or anything.’

‘We are,’ I kept my voice steady. ‘We want to…’

Rudy crawled out from under the table and climbed onto my lap. Rudy, my friend. Ally in all battles, bloody or not.

‘You want to marry a Kashmiri!’ Papa gagged on his whiskey as if it was hemlock.

‘Please don’t make it sound like a crime.’

Ma wept quietly. Nikhil leaned sideways and put his arm around her shoulders. I felt totally alone, even though all four of us were in the room.

Rudy burrowed deeper into my lap, determined to stick to my side in a battle he sensed I was losing.

‘We’re not in a hurry,’ I said. ‘Meet Faizal when you feel like it. No rush.’

Papa scraped back his chair and stood up. He was a tall man. Six foot one. A fighter pilot who had trouble fitting into airline seats. A fighter pilot trained to see the world in black and white.

‘You’re making a terrible mistake.’ His tone was as grim as a judge’s at a hanging.

‘Faizal’s not a jihadi,’ I snapped at him. ‘He’s an IAS officer like me. He has a good heart. And a very sharp brain.’

Ma sobbed. She didn’t bother to wipe away her tears.

‘Is it because he’s a Muslim?’ I asked. ‘You think all Muslims are terrorists?’

‘I know Kashmir.’ Papa gave me a pitying look. ‘I know how Kashmiris operate.’

‘That’s so unfair.’

‘Indians who hate India. Indians who badmouth the country every chance they get. You can’t trust these traitors.’

‘Faizal’s not like that.’

‘Dig deep and you’ll see.’

Nikhil stared at me from across the table as if I were a bloodsucking monster. Ma buried her head in her hands.

‘Meet him before you make up your mind. Give him a chance, please.’ My request lay between us – a rickety bridge no one would cross. I waited for a kind word, signs of a thaw, a whiff of compromise. In the end, I gathered Rudy in my arms and walked out. The house was very quiet, very still. My footsteps rang out like gunshots when I went up the stairs.

 

*

 

There is a before and an after in every life. That Sunday cleaved mine in two. Life before and life afterwards – two mismatched halves that would never form a whole. Conversations became a tightrope walk. At mealtimes, the air was taut with tension. Anything I said was open to misinterpretation. A word, a joke, even the simplest gesture could set off an explosion. Rattled, I retreated into silence.

In the mornings, I skipped breakfast and left for work early. Faizal was my oasis of calm. He spotted silver linings in the dark. His infinite, almost annoyingly saintly capacity for keeping the faith was stronger than my doubts. He swore the cold war at home would end soon. We started spending more time together after work. Coffee in our favourite café, walks in Lodhi Garden, the lush green refuge in the heart of Delhi’s urban sprawl. The Garden brought out the poet in Faizal. He burst into song in the bamboo groves, recited love poems before the Mughal emperors’ magnificent tombs, kissed me in the rose garden, serenaded me under the sprawling oaks.

Time slowed down when I was with him. The sun shone bright, the sky blazed blue. But evening always deepened into night and night brought me no comfort. At home, a strained silence reigned. Dinner was the worst. Ma picked at her food distractedly. Papa chewed on his roti with barely contained rage. Nikhil plodded on like a mourner at a funeral.

Bahadur hovered around the dining table, fussing over us, worrying over whether the whole family was coming down with something serious. Rudy sat at my feet, gazing at me with adoring eyes. I smuggled some fried fish to him. He arched his back, rubbed up against my legs and expressed his eternal gratitude. He was easy to please.

Sleep was a major casualty of our cold war. I tried everything: drinking herbal teas at bedtime, listening to soothing soundtracks (the song of the sea, the whisper of the wind), even counting sheep, clichéd as it is. Nothing helped. I was up all night, tossing and turning, stumbling out of my room like a sleepwalker at first light.

One night, tired of sparring with insomnia, I decided to go for a walk. Through my window, I saw a full moon hovering in the sky. Stars blinked. Rudy came running to me, sensing my plan to step out. Wherever I was headed, he would follow. I slid back the bolt on my door. I jiggled the handle – once, twice, thrice. The door wouldn’t budge. Rudy butted his head against the door, sniffed at it, ran around the room in circles. He was as frustrated as me.

We gave up on our walk. All night, the door stayed shut. When sunlight started to trickle in through the curtains, I heard a soft click: the sound of a key turning, someone tiptoeing around – the sound of my door being unlocked. I froze. For the first time in my life, I was zapped by fear in my own house.

When I went down for breakfast with Rudy at my heels, Nikhil was huddled on the couch, his nose buried in the newspaper. Ma and Papa were out on the lawn, striking yoga poses, basking in the honeyed morning light. Bahadur brought me a cup of tea. Asked me if I’d slept well.

‘I’m under house arrest,’ I said. ‘How can I sleep well?’

Bahadur made a quick exit. If a fight was brewing, he wasn’t going to get caught in the crosshairs. Taking sides was a dangerous business and Bahadur was a careful man.

‘Why lock me up?’ I raised my voice. ‘Was that your idea?’

Nikhil looked up at me from his newspaper. His chin was covered in stubble. Dark circles shadowed his eyes. ‘Don’t yell at me, Tara,’ he said. ‘I have a headache.’

‘What’s next? Armed guards? Cops chasing after me on the street?’

‘Stop it,’ he said, massaging his temples. ‘Your door’s jammed, we’ll get it fixed. End of story.’

I didn’t have the stomach for a fight, so I backed away. Nikhil went back to reading the paper and I headed to work. All day, a niggling feeling – fear, worry, a whiff of sadness – trailed after me like a shadow. Faizal’s jokes didn’t make me laugh. The future was a maze. Navigating it, even with Faizal by my side, looked like a hopeless business.

Weeks of strained silence at home, weeks of tightrope walking. And then the wind changed direction without warning. When I walked into the house one Friday evening, Ma and Papa were grinning like children. They were dressed in their best and Bahadur had cooked up a feast. Nikhil was home too. Talk and laughter and friendly banter drifted in the air.

Relieved, I sat down to dinner. Ma served me an extra helping of kheer. She’d made the dessert, my favourite, herself. We ate in peace. Chatted like we used to. Papa laughed at his own jokes. Nikhil and I pulled his leg. For an hour, I convinced myself that peace had returned. For an hour, I tricked myself into believing we had gone back to the way we were before I said Faizal’s name on a Sunday evening and the walls closed in on us.

When Bahadur came in to clear the table, Papa and Nikhil made a strategic exit from the room.

‘Stay,’ Ma smiled at me from across the table. ‘Let’s talk.’

Lulled by the feast and glasses of red wine, I leaned back in my chair. Ma spoke softly, strung her words together with care. The Kohlis – General Kohli and his wife, golfer and philanthropist Sunita Kohli, had come by the house that evening. Their son, Vikas, was a heart surgeon who was famous for saving lives in San Francisco. A fine young man with an excellent pedigree. A green card holder. A respected member of the Asian American community.

‘A perfect match,’ Ma smiled. ‘You two would make a great couple.’

And then it dawned on me that nothing had changed. We were still stranded on opposite shores. The evening had been an illusion, a conjurer’s trick to reel me in. A prelude to this proposal. A means to an end.

‘He’s not Faizal,’ I explained. ‘And Faizal’s the only man I want to be with.’

Ma kept at it. A stream of advice, followed by angry tears, and a bitter speech forged from disappointment. Papa was counting on me to make the right choice. Nikhil expected better from me. How could I be so stubborn? How could I humiliate my family this way?

 

*

 

I didn’t tell Faizal about the heart surgeon. The Kohlis and their son had nothing to do with us. They were not part of our story. I didn’t tell Faizal about my locked door either. His peace of mind was not mine to wreck.

We spent our lunch hour together at the office, took off for our walks in the evenings, caught a movie or a concert at the weekends, went book shopping at Midlands, a landmark etched as clearly as the Qutub Minar on local book lovers’ mental map of the city. The store had an impressive collection. The owner – soft-spoken, balding Rainaji – would dig up any book you demanded like a magician on stage. He chatted with all his customers. He knew the regulars by name.

A bookstore is the last place you expect to see spies at work. A strip joint or a pub with poor lighting, no surprises there. But Nikhil picked Midlands to spy on Faizal and me. There he was, my lanky brother, dressed in a white shirt and jeans, peering at us from behind a stack of books, his gaze following us like a laser beam. A minute later, he was gone. Poof! A puff of smoke. A lightning flash. A pain in the neck. I would’ve laughed it off if I didn’t know for sure that my brother never walked into bookstores, never read for pleasure even if a book jumped into his arms and begged to be read.

I was tempted to confront him. Order him to back off. But things were so tense at home, the peace – or what passed for it – so fragile, I chose not to make it worse by questioning him. I kept an eye out for him wherever we went. He could be trailing after us on the streets, driving at a discreet distance, mapping the routes we took. He could be hiding behind a bush or a giant oak in the garden, making notes about our evening stroll. The vigil was exhausting. I couldn’t let my guard down even for a minute.

There was good news on the night-time lockdown, though. Nervously, I tried my bedroom door every night. Miraculously, it swung open, letting me breathe easy. Ma and Papa kept conversations with me to a minimum. There were no heart-to-hearts, but the angry tears and accusations slowly dried up. Nikhil started to thaw too. Sometimes he shared a story about his day with me at the dinner table. Sometimes he cracked me up with a joke.

‘Told you things would work out,’ Faizal said. ‘Give it time, my love. Just give it time.’

My heart stopped fluttering like a panicky bird. The days stopped weighing down on my head. The nights stayed the same, though. In spite of my pleas, sleep refused to return.

One night, I was hunched over my desk, checking a file I’d brought home from work. A knock on the bedroom door made me jump. Rudy rushed to the door before I got there.

‘Hey! It’s me.’ Nikhil’s voice, a whisper, a reassurance.

I let him in. Rudy settled down at the foot of my bed, at ease.

‘Ma sent this up.’ Nikhil handed me a glass. ‘Warm milk with saffron.’

‘Thanks!’

‘Guaranteed to put you to sleep.’

‘We’ll see,’ I said, desperate to trust Ma’s remedy.

Nikhil didn’t stick around to chat. Long day at work – he was dying to go to bed. We said goodnight and I shut my door. Rudy purred softly from his perch.

I stayed up for another hour. Forgot all about the milk as I checked my file, waded through a swamp of officialese and made sense of it. The night was quiet. No roar of traffic, no blaring horns or alarms. The silence was a balm. An invite to drift off to sleep if ever there was one. I put away my papers and switched off my reading lamp. Rudy leaped into my lap, made me lose my balance and sent the glass of milk crashing to the floor. Before I could say a word, he crouched down and lapped up the milk, his pink tongue darting in quick bursts till the floor was wiped clean.

‘Rudy!’ I bent down to pat his fluffy head. ‘Silly boy, Rudy.’

He purred and purred, and rolled over onto his back. Milk was bliss. He was a good boy, easy to please.

I left him there on the floor and headed into the en-suite bathroom. Sleep or no sleep, a warm bath always made me feel better. Some time later, when I came back into the room, Rudy was curled up on the floor, at the exact spot where I had left him. But he wasn’t moving. Or purring. Or giving me goofy looks. His eyes were shut tight and his body had turned an alarming shade of purple. I knelt down and scooped him up in my arms. He was so cold and stiff, so quiet.

‘Rudy,’ I called out to him, loud enough to wake my family, loud enough to wake the whole town.

I cradled Rudy in my arms, rocking him gently like a newborn babe. I slid the bolt back on my door. Yanked the handle. Yanked it hard.

The door wouldn’t open. The door wouldn’t budge.

 

 

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