The Second Honeymoon
by Praveena Shivram
In the 25 years that she had been married to Subbu, this was going to be Lalitha’s second holiday alone with her husband. A holiday in Switzerland for one week.
He called it the “second honeymoon”. How embarrassing, thought Lalitha to herself, as she tucked in the pallu of her sari in her waist, lifted the bucket from the bathroom with a working geyser, carried it across the living room to the bedroom with the attached bath, and placed it at the door of the bathroom. She knocked once and said, “The hot water,” and heard a grunt from inside, which was her cue to leave. She left Subbu’s towel on the bed, his underclothes next to it and took the shirt and pants he had left on the bed to the living room. Here, she set up the ironing board, put the iron on, went to the kitchen and switched off the stove to tame the screaming pressure cooker. She had come back to the living room and begun to iron his clothes, when Subbu shouted from the bathroom. “Lalitha! Soap!” She slapped her forehead, put the iron down and went to the storeroom adjoining the kitchen to take out a fresh bar of Cinthol soap. She rushed to the bathroom, and placed the unopened pack on Subbu’s angry, wet palm. He banged the door shut muttering, “useless woman”, under his breath, but Lalitha caught the words anyway and it stuck to her body like sweat.
She could smell something burning. She rushed to the kitchen, puzzled. The gas was off.
She rushed out and saw smoke spiral out like a black curse, leaving an iron-shaped hole right at the heart of the shirt. Lalitha rushed to the room she shared with her husband and yanked open the cupboard, her head snapping back involuntarily every few seconds to the bathroom. She picked out a similar looking shirt – in a lighter shade of blue with thin white stripes instead of thin grey stripes – and ran back to the ironing board, her hands moving like some sort of automated machine – up down up down left right front back – and then she ran back to the room. With shaking hands she placed the neatly pressed clothes on the hanger that was dangling like a trap from the handle of the cupboard, and walked out quickly, her sari petticoat mercilessly slapping against her legs, to get rid of the smell and the burnt shirt. She stuffed the shirt inside the washing machine on the balcony – Subbu would never dream of going there – and quickly lit an agarbathi in the mini temple she had created in the alcove at the corner of the living room.
She heard the bathroom door open, her cue to disappear into the kitchen to pack his lunch – two chapathis, a vegetable kurma with only one teaspoon of oil, salad and curd. He was now following a no-rice diet and therefore Lalitha was too. It was too tedious to cook different meals for just two people in the house.
“Lalitha!” she heard Subbu’s voice. Somehow, her name sounded alien on Subbu’s lips. She had felt it right from the beginning of their marriage, even when they were in bed together. It felt like her name was being thrown into a blender and it was being cut and sliced and crushed and what came out in the end was still her name, except it was an unidentifiable mass of nothingness.
She hurried to the room and Subbu stood there, fully dressed, with the comb in his hand. “Look how dirty this is! Can’t you clean this? What do you do the whole day?” He threw the comb at her and it landed clumsily by her feet. She picked it up and took it to the bathroom to clean it. “Not there. You know I hate that. I can’t stand those flecks of dirt. Take it outside.”
Lalitha was tempted to point out that those flecks of dirt were from his own head. But that wasn’t part of the script. She took the comb outside to the wash basin in the balcony, thankful that he did not notice the shirt. As she was cleaning it, Subbu indicated that he was leaving by jangling his keys. So she dropped the comb into the basin, went to the kitchen and picked up Subbu’s lunch, different sized Tupperware boxes arranged meticulously inside a Tupperware bag. By the time she came out of the kitchen, Subbu was already by the door, talking on the phone. He took the lunch bag from her without making eye contact and left.
Lalitha shut the door and went out to the balcony again. She saw Subbu’s car – a Ford, its black skin gleaming like diamonds under the sun – pull out of the gate of their apartment, the watchman do a brisk salaam and close the tall iron gate with a mighty prison clang. Only then did Lalitha sit down. On their plush leather sofas. Her feet on the glass center table, the fan slowly whirring above her like a graceful sufi saint. And only then did she think about this second honeymoon.
They were meant to leave next week, very early, Subbu had said, and Lalitha was already dreading it. She couldn’t imagine surviving even a minute with Subbu, without the blanket of everyday routine wrapped around her tired body. And to think she would be alone with him for one whole week! She shook her head, a quiet laugh keeping rhythm with her movement, and went into the master bedroom. Subbu’s clumsiness was stamped all over the place – the wet towel thrown carelessly on the bed, the crumpled sheets still full of Subbu’s dreams, his slippers half-peeking out from under the side-table, the book he was currently reading – Steve Jobs’ autobiography (Lalitha felt a smirk escape) – face down on the page he had stopped at, his glasses precariously perched on the spine and a little glass cup filled with water in which Subbu would place his dentures at night.
Now, Lalitha laughed out loud and fell on the bed. She kicked his towel with her feet like a discarded, crushed tetrapack on the road, and pushed his sheets away from her face. One week with this idiot, she thought to herself.
As Subbu pulled out of the gate, he stopped some distance away from the house and wiped his forehead. He felt a bit relieved to have finally left the house, but a corner of his brain was already dreading the return home. He swiped his smartphone and checked his messages. Most of them were from Padma, his secretary of 12 years. He had a packed day ahead, just as he liked it, with only a half-an-hour break for lunch. There were a couple of messages from the hotels in Switzerland asking for the time he was arriving, but he knew Padma would take care of that too.
What was he thinking when he booked the tickets?
He adjusted the collar of his shirt in the rear-view mirror, wondering what had happened for Lalitha to change his shirt, but he wouldn’t allow the question to entice him any further. Demons and monsters living in old houses and inside abandoned lakes were best left alone.
She heard a key turn in the lock and Lalitha jerked suddenly, wondering if Subbu had come back, but reminded herself, as she did every day at this time, that it was just the maid. So Lalitha retired to their room for a nap. She had been instructed by Subbu to do so and Subbu hated disobedience. Two hours later, the house was neat and tidy, like children at school in the morning. When she saw the perfect symmetry of the rug in the hall, the table runner on the dining table, the curtains on the window and the frames on the wall, she allowed herself a smile.
The phone rang and she frowned. It was Padma, Subbu’s personal secretary, who always said “Mr. Subramanian’s office” with the same gravity a prime minister’s office might use. Lalitha knew Padma was definitely more than his personal secretary and the cliché of it all just tired her even more.
“Yes, Padma, what is it?”
“Sir wanted me to buy you a winter jacket and some scarves. I wanted to know if you had a specific color in mind?”
Sir, my foot, thought Lalitha and then, in a flash, it came to her.
“Padma, are you going to be travelling with us as well?”
“No, Mrs. Subramanian, why would I?”
Lalitha could smell resentment a mile away. “Please pick any color,” she said, her mood instantly floating in a fog of delight.
She picked up the tidied rug from the floor and flung it across the room. She allowed her hands to tilt the picture frames, delighting in their crooked smiles. She picked up a pair of scissors and slashed through the curtains, trying to see if the cuts and tears could reveal her secrets. When she was sure they couldn’t, she flung the scissors aside too. Then she remembered the shirt stuffed inside the washing machine and retrieved the scissors. She cut up the shirt into neat little squares, stuffed the squares inside an envelope and left it by Subbu’s book, remembering to keep the book upright and his glasses, folded and subdued, next to it.
Subbu looked around the room nervously. He hated these board meetings because even though he was the CEO, no one really cared much for his presence or opinion. It had now been ten years since Lalitha’s father died. Subbu had taken over then, but people still behaved like he was an uninvited guest at the party. They maintained decorum, of course, and were civil around him, but each of the 10 bodies in that room bristled with the same question – when are you going to leave?
At times like these, Subbu really missed his mother. He wondered if his life would have turned out differently if his mother had been around. He felt handicapped without her, and after her fall down the stairs and her eventual death, he felt like someone had rudely kicked the crutches from under his armpits. In fact, it was only after her death, did he realise he was even leaning on those crutches.
He saw Padma walk towards the room and knew she would provide an excuse for him to leave the meeting. His 20 minutes of torture was up. “Mr. Subramanian, there is an important call you need to take,” she said, her voice deep like a man’s though it somehow changed to a high pitched squeak when they were together, his pants unzipped and her skirt hitched up. Sex with Padma was a perfunctory act, a release, but sex with Lalitha … Subbu allowed himself a smile and felt hopeful about their second honeymoon.
Lalitha surveyed their room. Where should she begin?
She decided to begin from under the bed, as always. She lay down flat on her stomach and put her hand out to drag the bulky suitcase. It slid out smoothly, its surface clean of dust. She undid the latch, the click like a warm refrain from a time gone by. She opened the suitcase and let out a small cry, as she always did, when she saw the little odds and ends that she had collected over time. She couldn’t even remember when she had begun.
There was a half-eaten lollipop, now unrecognisable with fungus, but Lalitha picked it up anyway and smelled deeply, her eyes closed, thinking of the chubby hands that had once held it. Then she saw a woodcutter hacking those hands and let the lollipop drop like a matchstick that had reached the end of its life. She pushed the air aside from front of her face and tried again.
This time she picked up a little T-shirt that said ‘Daddy’s little girl’ and held it close to her heart, willing her mind to bring up the right image. But all she saw was a truck ramming into the small body wearing that T-shirt and so she let the T-shirt drop to the floor too. She decided to try one more time and picked up a tiny shoe, shaped like a walnut, but the minute she held it in her hands she saw a train run over tiny feet.
Lalitha shut the suitcase with a bang and rudely pushed it aside.
She opened Subbu’s cupboard and ran her hands through his neatly stacked shirts and pants and socks and ties, and threw them all to the floor. She stomped on them hard, till water sprang from her eyes like a fountain from the ground and she left the room. Memories of her child, now dead and gone, followed her around, eventually settling like flecks of dust wherever Lalitha looked.
And then she worked like a robot. She did not allow herself to think. She performed everything to perfection. She cleaned and washed and swept and mopped and dusted and scrubbed and arranged and transformed the house into a spotless museum, rendering the memories dead by virtue of her impeccability. And then she fell down exhausted on the bed, her hair a mess, her clothes drenched in sweat and her limbs feeling like they were falling off her body like crushed stalks of sugarcane.
Subbu picked up his bag and slung it across his shoulders. He dragged his feet to the door, when Padma walked into the room.
“Sir, here is the jacket and scarf for ma’am.”
Subbu took the bag, and held Padma’s hands in his.
“Am I making a mistake, Padma?”
Padma looked confused. She wouldn’t meet his eyes and kept looking at the floor, wondering what he was talking about exactly – his marriage, the honeymoon or her? When the silence between them became suffocating, she moved away, wished him good night and left the room, her heels clicking against the marble floor like hard rain.
If she had stayed, maybe Subbu would have confessed; found the courage somehow to give shape to the life he was living with Lalitha, his need to end this farce, his sheer exhaustion at the parts he was expected to play every day.
Subbu walked out into the night, the unlock signal in his car beaming at him like two uneasy clowns at a circus.
Lalitha looked at the clock. It was going to be 7 o’clock and in half an hour Subbu would be home. She had to get ready.
She had a quick bath, making sure the floor wasn’t wet as Subbu hated that; she wore a slightly faded cotton pink sari, finger-combed her hair and tied it up into a tight bun, and walked into the storeroom. She climbed a chair and pulled out a rusty trunk from the loft and let it fall like old carcass on the ground. She sat on the chair and opened the trunk, her fingers involuntarily shaking and her body crackling with anticipation at what was to come.
She pulled out a sari – heavily sequinned and in garish colours of neon green and bright orange – smelling of dried blood. The minute Lalitha touched it, she felt hatred light up her body like fairy lights and wished she hadn’t done what she had done 20 years ago. She wished she hadn’t pushed that old lady with arthritic knees down the stairs, her bones cracking like bamboo sticks and her head smacking against the steps like coconuts outside a temple. As Lalitha’s quiet logical mind informed her, she sent the old demonic lady to her child who had been slaughtered by old demonic hands.
She stood up on the chair again, tied the sari to the fan in the storeroom, slowly made a loop around her neck, checked the time – 7:20 pm.
She had five more minutes, so she did what she always did. She sang the song that had always made her baby drift into the nothingness of sleep.
“Kaakaa kannukku mai konduva
(Crow, bring some kohl for my eyes)
Kuruvi kondaikku poo konduva
(Pigeon, bring some flowers for my hair)
Kokke kozhandheku paal konduva
(Stork, bring some milk for my baby)
Killiye kinnathil thean konduva”
(Parrot, bring some honey in a cup)
When the clock struck half past seven, she kicked the chair under her feet.
Subbu stood outside the door of his house and heard Lalitha singing. The song that, in Subbu’s mind, was the beginning of the downfall of everything in his life. The song that was seared in his heart, one word at a time, beginning with the doctor’s visit two years into their marriage, the multiple fertility tests they had to undergo, the waiting, and the reports, unable to mask the complications blossoming inside Lalitha’s body like an itchy rash.
He heard the chair fall. He knew what would meet his eyes when he opened the door. And just once, he thought, maybe he won’t enter when she expected him to enter. Maybe he would stay outside the door a little while longer. Maybe that would be a fitting end to this nightmare. And maybe, when he wakes up, he will see that the obsessive Lalitha who roamed around the house with an inert doll, breastfeeding it for a year and then bringing it up as her baby, the obsessive Lalitha who his mother had watched with rising alarm and organised prayer after prayer at home till she finally got rid of the doll, the obsessive Lalitha who, for the last 20 years called his mother a murderer and mourned the death of her child, finding new things to add to her growing list of memories … maybe that Lalitha would die and in her place the Lalitha he had married would come back.
He opened the door and rushed to the storeroom and found Lalitha gracefully swaying like an empty swing. He hugged her legs and helped her down and cursed himself for delaying by a few seconds. Lalitha was unconscious and for one horrible moment, Subbu thought he had lost her but she was still breathing. He untied the sari, the one his mother had died in, and placed it back into the trunk, afraid to change anything in the sequence of their daily routine. He then carried Lalitha like a fragile piece of glass, afraid he would drop her and she would shatter across the floor into a million pieces. And then he smiled, in spite of himself, because he knew, he was already carrying that shattered Lalitha, roughly put back together with his own doggedness to not let go.
The next day Lalitha woke up to high fever. The sheets were wet, her nightie was clinging to her thighs and there was no Subbu next to her. She called out, her voice hoarse, but it looked like Subbu had left for the day. How long had she slept? She lifted her heavy body out of the bed and swung her legs to the floor and stood up and immediately felt the world tilt on its axis. She fell back on the bed with a heavy thump, like someone had thrown a large stone instead. She sat up again, holding on to the bedpost and saw a note under the alarm clock urgently flapping under the fan. It was from Subbu.
“You have high fever. Go to the doctor. Trip cancelled.”
Lalitha felt miraculously saved. The second honeymoon was cancelled! Everything could go back to normal. How relieved she felt. She lay back and went to sleep again. She would go to the doctor when she woke up; she would make a fantastic dinner to celebrate when she woke up, but nothing too grand as she wouldn’t want Subbu to suspect her mood; she would start shopping for herself when she woke up; she would throw that old sari out when she woke up; when she woke up the world would be a different place.
Praveena Shivramis a writer based in Chennai, India, and currently the Editor of Arts Illustrated, a pan-India arts and design based magazine. Over the past decade, she has written for several national publications, including The Times of India, India Today, The Hindu Business Line, Culturama and Biblio: A Review of Books. Her fiction has also been shortlisted and published, the most recent ones being for the Open Road Review, South Asia’s leading arts and culture journal, and for Helter Skelter’s upcoming anthology of New Writing Volume 6. In 2009, her short story “Neer” was selected as one of the highly commended stories of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and she is the recipient of the Prof. Barbra Naidu Personal Essay Prize (Open Category), 2017. She holds a Masters in Writing for Performance and Publication from the University of Leeds, UK, and a PG Diploma in Social Communications Media from Sophia Polytechnic, Mumbai.