In the End
by Kavitha Yaga Buggana
In the end, Bharath wanted the furniture and Suchi wanted the things on the walls. He had taken out his stuff. It was her turn. On the floor were bubble wrap, a pile of cardboard boxes, and two rolls of tape. She tied her long curls into a knot and stood, hands on hips, looking around. On the large yellow wall in the living room were photographs from the time they had been mad about traveling. There they were, the two of them, rocking against each other in a boat in Kerala, in Himachal weaving through a field of flowers, and in a small Goan roadside shack, full of wine and sea-fresh air and the heady knowledge that they were wild for each other. Everything came down easier than she expected, leaving behind faint rectangles that were brighter and less dusty than the empty walls around them.
At the end of the corridor was the study. Bharath’s black-and-white ink sketches were on a small wall next to the window. Suchi had had them framed and hung up, though he had rolled his eyes when she did, she remembered that. Paper rustled as she wrapped those careful compositions of wayside flowers and small birds. On a high shelf, behind where the desk had been, were Bharath’s other sketches. He had drawn these after his advertising business closed down and before he had started drinking too heavily to do much else. She strained to get at them. Those pictures of gnarled trees, a naked man bleeding on a broken bench, a vine gnawing into a child’s chest, unsettled her even now. When she had first seen them, she had asked Bharath what he had been thinking, drawing those unpleasant things.
“Unpleasant?” Bharath says, his hands crossed against his chest, “So sorry they don’t meet your high standards of art, Suchi.”
“I was just being honest. They’re not like the lovely things you usually draw,” Suchi tilts a sketch, angling it against the sunlight, “These are disturbing.”
“Well, my dear, art disturbs,” Bharath says, with a small, tight smile, “Art means something; it shakes you out of your pretty, pampered life.”
“Don’t preach to me about art and meaning and pampered lives!” Suchi flings the paper at him. Pampered? There is nothing pampered about her life. “You pompous ass!” she snaps.
“Bloody Hell! I spent hours on that,” Bharath catches his drawing and stuffs it, with the rest of his sketches, on a high shelf out of her reach. “Are you completely mad?”
“I must be mad.” Suchi shouts, “I must be completely mad to slog everyday from nine in the morning to nine at night…”
“Be quiet!” Bharath slams his palm down on the large study desk. The glass of whiskey on the table shivers. It is his fourth glass. Suchi is counting.
He says, “Seriously Suchi. ‘Nine to nine. Nine to nine. Nine to nine.’ I’m sick to death of hearing it.”
“You’d better hear it because it’s the truth,” Suchi says, “Nine to nine, nine to nine, I’m stuck in that room, that desk, that stale air. Nine to nine, I’m pushing shampoos and soaps to faceless people who spend their lives in an endless cycle of wanting, buying, discarding. But it’s a job. And since you don’t work, I’m stuck in my drudgery.”
“Drudgery? You’re working in an AC room with lunches at the cute new coffee shop where you banter with colleagues who fly to Paris for holiday. Try what I have. Unemployment. That’s a sure-shot job satisfaction booster. Or,” Bharath sits on his desk, crossing his legs, and pointing an index finger at her. He is now clearly enjoying himself, “Or, try what millions of people do. Hard, daily-wage labor. All of a sudden, selling shampoos will seem really meaningful.”
Suchi says, “So what if I am luckier than others? Can’t I be unhappy? What’s the point of saying I can’t, when I am? I’m so unhappy I could just explode.”
Bharath shakes his head, “Didn’t anyone tell you? Happiness is a scam. We’re meant to procreate, to eat and shit and claw ourselves up in this muddy world of ours. Where’s the place for happiness?” Bharath sips his whiskey and smirks, “So if you’re unhappy, join the club, my pretty, pampered wife.”
Suchi snatches the drink and throws it in his face. “Pompous ass,” she says. She hates it when he calls her pampered.
Suchi carried bubble wrap to the stairs. Two minaret-shaped grooves were carved into the corner. From the first groove, she picked up a green porcelain vase. It had been a present from Dinesh and Ritu who were friends to both of them. Would they now choose between them? In the second groove stood a red terracotta ashtray that Suchi had bought for Bharath over fifteen years ago. Soon after she gave it to him, his uncle got lung cancer, and Bharath quit smoking, though he had said he never would.
“Thanks, Suchi,” Bharath says when she gives him the ashtray, “You know, I’m never going to quit smoking.”
“Because cigarettes saved my life.”
Suchi laughs, “I’ve never heard that one before.”
“It’s true. A couple of years ago, I was with some Maoists from Andhra. I went to their forest outhouse. It was an incredible time. I’ve never been happier in my life. We read and debated revolution, struggle, Marx. One night, when I went out for a smoke, there was this—boom—explosion.”
“Was it a bomb?”
“I thought, for sure, it was, but the police said it was an electric fire. Who the hell knows. Anyway, when I ran in to help those guys it was already too late. The poor Bastards died and I didn’t. You know why? Because I was smoking and they weren’t,” Bharath dark lips are loose around the cigarette. The smoke rises along his thin face, his high cheekbones, his dark eyes. When he smokes, he reminds her of a wolf. He takes a long drag and taps the cigarette ash into the dirt.
“Why aren’t you using the ashtray?” She asks.
“Not yet. It’s your first gift to me. I want to keep it. Carefully.”
Suchi sat on the stairs, turning the ashtray around in her hands. She didn’t want it, yet she did not want to leave it here, as the only thing in the house. As she dangled it, the ashtray slipped. Cleaning up the pieces, she couldn’t decide whether the slip was a mistake or not.
On the kitchen shelf were pots of various sizes—a pressure cooker, a round masala container, and two aprons—even though Bharath mostly just used hers. Suchi untacked laminated recipes from the cork-board: her mother’s Pepper Crab, the Green Curry from their favorite Thai restaurant, his grandmother’s Coconut Milk Prawns. Bharath was the more talented cook. Every year, on her birthday, he had made Coconut Milk Prawns, her favorite dish. There was one time, ten or eleven years into their marriage, when he had almost forgotten.
It is late afternoon, and Bharath still has not wished her on her birthday. Something has set him off, Suchi does not know what. He is pacing the kitchen. He flings his arms in the air, like some caged thing. He cannot understand, he says, how things have come to this.
“I just don’t understand it. It’s been a whole year since the business closed down but, still, I can’t get a decent job. It’s my fault – I should have stood firm, stuck to my socialist ideals. Instead, I turned my back on them. And for what, for what? For a failed business, and for a woman and a house loan and a damn television.”
Suchi wonders if his estimation of their life together is just that: a failed business, a woman, a loan, and a television. Still, she does not see how any of it is her fault.
“What can I do if you’re such a failure and can’t make anything work?” Suchi says the words and cannot unsay them.
Bharath walks over and bends down so his forehead almost touches hers, “What do you know?” His mouth is tight and his hands, fists, are pressed hard against her jaw. He says, “Do you know what it means when you feel like you’re nothing, just a sack of useless flesh, occupying space? When you go to a party and some guy in a shiny suit asks you what you do and you have to make stuff up? Can you understand how that feels?”
Suchi slaps his hands away, “I’m trying to help. And you? You can’t even remember my birthday,” she says, and walks out of the house.
It is evening when she returns. There are prawns, plump and white, in a colander by the sink. Little round cups of spices—red chilli powder, cumin seeds, black peppercorns, and white lentils—sit like flower-petals in the masala container. The kitchen is enveloped by the smell of ghee and curry leaves and coconut milk. She scoots onto a barstool, watching the little movements of his back as he chops fresh coriander leaves.
In the dining room Suchi swung open the red and black curtains on the large French windows. White hibiscus and pink oleander bloomed boldly in the sunlight. Bharath’s mother had insisted they plant them. She had hoped that either her son or daughter-in-law would use them as offerings to the pictures of Gods and Goddesses in the tiny puja enclave, which she had insisted be built into a Vaastu-compliant nook downstairs. Neither Suchi nor Bharath did puja, though Suchi had always thought she might start some day, when she was older.
“Do you believe in God?” Bharath asks Suchi. To her, it sounds like a challenge. The tea-boy slaps down two steaming cups of masala chai and a plate with salt biscuits. Bharath and Suchi have met only a week before. He is her senior by three years. They are working on a Hindi adaptation of Chekov’s “The Sea Gull.” He is the director, and she is working on set design. They are just friends. Besides, they are both seeing other people. He has a turbulent on-and-off thing with a longhaired half-Lebanese beauty from Bombay who all the boys are after. Suchi has let herself be charmed by a communist who worships Che Guevara and dresses in actual army fatigues and boots.
The correct answer to the God question, in their post-religious intellectual crowd, is no.
“Yes. I do,” Suchi says.
“Really?” Bharath leans in, ”So you think there is this God that you pray to and all the bad things go away and magic and tamasha?”
“It’s not that,” Suchi says, “It’s just that there are so many things that are inexplicable this world.”
“And all those things are happily explained away by unseen divine beings,” he stretches back as he takes a long drag of his cigarette.
Suchi slowly dips a biscuit into her tea and they are both quiet for a time. “Bharath,” she says, finally, “Have you heard of the Chidambara rahasyam?”
“Chidambaram is a temple in Tamil Nadu. In it, there is a famous vigraham, statue, of Shiva. There is also, in that temple, a shrine with a black curtain and when that curtain is lifted, we see gold leaves hanging like a garland around thin air. This is the Rahasyam, the secret, of Shiva.”
“What is the secret?”
“Nothing. Those gold leaves are hanging in front of nothing. That is the secret. The black curtain signifies maya, illusion, and when it’s lifted we see, behind the hanging leaves, Shiva as a manifestation of empty space. Energy without attributes. Time. And yet, this duality of one sacred space, with both a physical deity and a formless truth, is precisely the point. We need both. We need the vigraham to which we can direct our longings and desperations and our faith. And when we are ready to confront a comfortless truth, we can draw aside that veil of maya. I love that—that we are allowed to realize only the truth that we can bear, and nothing more.”
Bharath nods at her. “That was lovely, Suchi. But, tell me, who opens it? Who is allowed to open the curtain?”
Suchi smiles. She knows what he is getting at, “The priest.”
“Exactly. Why the priest? Why can’t we open the curtain ourselves? And why all the mystery?”
Suchi pushes her empty tea cup aside, “Religion is the opium of the people that perpetuates an exploitative system and all that, you don’t have to tell me, I know. Still, we don’t need priests for our worship.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, if we wanted to, we could worship in our puja room at home.”
“So,” Bharath asks, “Do you do puja? Do you have a puja room?”
“No,” She says and gathers her books, “But I might some day. When I am older.”
Pushed against two walls were white bookshelves that Bharath had not taken, though they were, technically, furniture. There were gaps, like broken teeth, where his books had been. She started taking her books down, stacking them in a cardboard box. She pulled out a novel. Its pages were still crinkled from the time they had been wet.
“My book is wet, Damn it!” Suchi says as she shakes the pages. Bharath is passed out on the couch with the TV blaring, his whiskey spilt on the coffee table, and all over her book. Bharath has a job interview in two hours, his first in months. Suchi knows, she just knows, that he will not go. Dinesh set up the interview, and Bharath does not want to be obliged. What is wrong with being obliged, anyway? It is better than being unkempt, unbathed, glued to the television. And drunk. That’s all he seems to do, these days, drink. What she hates most are his excuses. I don’t have a problem, it’s just a couple of drinks. It’s Friday night, loosen up. When did you turn into such a nag, Suchi?
“Wake up!” She shoves him. He does not move. She kicks him, experimentally. She kicks again and again, each time with greater force. When he groans, she becomes aware that she is panting. She feels alive and wonderful and terrible. He mumbles something sleepy. She shakes her head. She finds herself crying. She remembers his cockiness and thinks he has a kind of innocence that will never leave him. She whispers in his ear, “Let’s go away. Just you and me. To an island somewhere. Let us fish in the seas and live like children. There’s still a chance for us. Let’s give it all up: the house, my job, the savings, the debts, everyone we ever knew. Do you think I couldn’t do it? I would. I would, in a second.”
He doesn’t stir. She picks up her book and sets it out under the ceiling fan to dry.
Upstairs was their bedroom. In the dressing area stood a large mirror in an antique wood frame. It was heavy and made her arms quake as she took it down. On her side of the room, though it was no longer her side, was the first photo of the two of them. She took it down and cleaned it with a paper tissue from her bag.
After a somewhat successful run of their college play, the entire team of “The Sea-Gull” takes a weekend break on a small island off the coast of Karnataka. On one end of the island, a strip of land juts far out into the water, like the truck of a fallen eucalyptus tree. Suchi wants to walk on it. She thinks it will be like walking on waves. It is a cool winter afternoon and she sets out to the beach with her camera. To her surprise, Bharath says he will keep her company. The sun is brilliant as they walk the narrow strip, and the sand scrunches between her toes. Suchi feels Bharath’s fingers graze against her left hand. She is suddenly light-headed and cannot think of anything to say. Her camera drops. At some point before it hits the ground, it snaps a picture. Later, she shows the photo to Bharath. In one corner is a close up of their hands, just touching, and the rest of the picture is blue-green water and white light frozen on waves.
Suchi wrapped the photo twice in bubble wrap and put it away. There, that was everything. She lugged everything to the living room and wished she had called someone to help. There were too many things to fit into her tiny new flat and she would take only a few. She would call their old maid to pick everything else up.
Suchi took stock of all the things she had piled. She thought of the pictures that had not been hung, the things that should have happened but never did. None of her walls had a photograph of her pregnant, hand on stomach. They did not have pictures of babies in fluffed blankets staring with Bharath’s wide eyes, or small children on swings, curly hair all over their faces. They had thought there would be time for these things later; first, there had been careers to build, ideals to be fought for, the whole world waiting to be seen.
It was now well after noon. Sitting on the floor, she ate a paneer-and-chapati roll that she had stuffed into her bag. She rinsed her hands clean under the kitchen sink. The sound of water reminded her of their last fight, on a night during the monsoon season, when it had been raining outside.
“Paneer?” Bharath says.
“Yes, Bharath, Paneer,” Suchi snaps at him. She had called him from the car on her way back from work and had asked him, specifically, to order paneer on her pizza. Does he just not care? Is it a deliberate omission?
“OK. I didn’t remember,” Bharath shrugs.
“You must have been drunk.”
“I haven’t had a drop the whole day,” Bharath says. Suchi thinks it may be true. He has been trying to stay off the bottle. “Anyway,” He continues, “What’s the fuss about? Hell, it’s just paneer.”
“It’s not just paneer! Of course, it is not just paneer. It is everything.” It is his disregard, his thoughtlessness, his inability to get anything right.
“Listen, Drama Queen, I don’t have to put up with filmi histrionics,” Bharath turns away.
Suchi cannot not bear him turning away, dismissing her like she is a nobody, “Don’t you dare call me a drama queen, you self-righteous Bastard!” Suchi lunges at his back. She tears at his shirt. She smiles when the cloth rips, and scratches, like dark roads, appear on his back. He yells and swirls around. His hands dig into her shoulders as he holds her away.
“Let me go!” Suchi shouts. She cannot not bear his touch, the smell of his flabby skin, his stale breath. He lifts her up. He shakes her. She claws at his face, his neck, anything. Now, there are no words between them, just grunting and panting and other sounds that they understand better than words. He is pushing her down to the floor. She kicks him in the shin, hard. He lets out a short wail and flings her against the wall. At that instant, that is, the instant her back hits the wall, everything turns perfectly still. The stillness is like a tear in a curtain through which she can see some other side.
In the old wooden mirror, she sees them: Bharath and Suchi. The people in the mirror are them, but also aren’t them. The people in the mirror look strange, their faces contorted, full of spite. Who are they? They are not the laughing people in the living-room photographs, dressed in their sun hats and bright cotton shirts. They are not those young people who had been good to each other, because the world had been good to them. Instead, they are these ugly, bitter people who have been undone by their own smallness, their wounds and fragilities.
“What the hell are you gaping at?” Bharath says.
“I had this strange feeling,” She can hardly believe how even her voice sounds.
Look at us, look at us, she wants to tell him, look at how we have failed each other, Bharath, failed, not because of what we are, but because our eyes can see only the smiling faces in the photos but never the people in the mirror staring at us, and do you know that if we stay together, the people in the mirror will engulf us entirely and there will be nothing left. She wants to tell him that, but finds she cannot speak.
“What, Suchi, what?” Bharth glares down at her.
She says, “Go away. Please.”
Bharath hesitates, “For the record, you attacked me first. I’m not the only bad guy here.”
“There are no bad guys or good guys. That would have been too easy.”
He takes a deep breath, “Are you hurt? Here, let me help you up.”
She shakes her head, “I’m alright. Leave me. Please.”
“Are you sure?”
The door closes softly behind him. In the emptiness, Suchi thrusts her face to the mirror, her nose almost touching the cool glass. She does not wipe off her sweat or straighten her hair or clean the dirt on her forehead. She stands still, staring, her breath making small clouds on her reflection.
Suchi wiped her hands clean with a napkin. In front of her bloomed the garden and further ahead, old peepul trees with round leaves lined the street. She began to rummage through the photographs and his drawings, the recipes they had cooked, the mirror in their bedroom. There was the accidental photo of those two held hands, poised at the edge of a question they did not understand. She got up, dusting her kurta. She circled around, picking out the things she would take and the things she would leave behind.
Kavitha Yaga Buggana lives in Hyderabad, India. Her essays and short fiction have been published in River Teeth Journal, Tehelka, and Muse India Magazine. Kavitha won first prize at the 2011 Hindu Metroplus Theater Citizen’s Review Contest in Hyderabad. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. In previous avatars, she was a software engineer in Chicago and a developmental economist doing field-work in Angallu Village, India. She also does voice-overs for short films.