Nyna's Trip to Shirdi
'This is it,' thought Nyna. 'I am finally doing it.' Nyna had long borne some kind of burden for her husband's drinking. It showed, as she pointed out, in the excessive hair on her face and arms. But, as if that weren't bad enough, recently at an AA meeting, spouses were told that they held the key to the alcoholic's transformation. "Love unconditionally," someone said.
Love unconditionally? Hunh! Loving was bad enough. All love had been exhausted. 'Perhaps,' she told herself cynically, 'I need to go shopping for love.' And that's how, in a sense, this trip to Shirdi happened.
She sat as stiff as a doll-princess in her polka-dot dress. Bonafide lovers in a place for pilgrimage is bad enough, but adulterers? The bus was filling up with pilgrims, worshippers of the bandana-ed saint, Saibaba of Shirdi, Saibaba the original.
Hanging out of the doorway, the bus helper shouted, "Shirdi! Shirdi!" banging the tinny body of the vehicle with little respect for its vulnerability.
Mullick, her companion, her boss, never even offered her the window seat, and this was their first trip. It made her feel... strange. Sort of desperate, which she wasn't, she told herself. Shomu, her husband, had always been so attentive‹at least in the first phase of love. However, when the bus stopped, Mullick did offer to buy her some batatawada and tea. Even then, he bought his India Today first.
Nyna began chattering self-consciously about sexual love in holy places, while her companion looked at her puzzled. As if he'd never heard of guilt or at least, it too was something the colonisers had planted.
"When we were in college," she said, "there used to be a church nearby. All day, lovers would use it as a meeting ground. Finally one day, a big sign was put up: This is a place for pilgrimage and prayer. No picnics allowed. At that time we resented it, but on looking back it does make sense, doesn't it?"
"Aha," realised Mullick, "she's feeling that thing called 'guilt,' like I had the first time I went out with another woman." Pleasure caromed in his chest. But Nyna, who was taking this trip as revenge against Shomu, was simultaneously fondly reliving her first meeting with him. They had dated in that church compound.
Aloud, Mullick said, "I hope no such signs are put up in Shirdi, my dear girl, hanh? We will both be very disappointed, won't we?"
He nudged her and waited for her reaction. But her mind returned to Shomu.
In the beginning Shomu Anand was a V-bodied, handsome, and yet reticent man, but there was the usual catch. He loved the bottle, and the bottle, over time, poured acid on his two assets, corroding them both. The mounds under his eyes, the alcoholic's puff, and his volcano of anger at all other human beings, converted him into a bifurcated creature: Jekyll and Hyde.
Nyna's office had begun to talk. First, about Shomu‹the perfect find‹and then, within a year, about his drinking. "Hey," someone would ask during the break, "did you hear the latest about Shomu?" or "Hear, hear! Shomu's reverted to animal behaviour. Devolution!"
Of course, it was her own doing: She announced her domestic drama to the whole office with the regularity of a BBC bulletin. And there is something about the new carpeted, computerised, acoustically sound offices. Without the clatter of manual typewriters, walls have developed larger ears and gossip resounds. The Nyna triangle had taken time to evolve. Line after juicy line. The first angle came slowly, but the other two followed fast enough, to complete the pointer that now pursued her at work. And, finally led to her mistress-ification.
Because the boss, ensconced in his cabin, nevertheless got to hear every bit of it.
Shomu had begun with social drinking and all that blah, blah; thus went the gossip. Then, he rationalised. And sometimes Nyna did it for him. Soon shame spread thin. Guilt and remorse, rather than deterring, got pressed into fuel. He doubled his drinking capacity. Effortlessly, he graduated to drinking for breakfast, slouching on a sofa, his legs split obtuse. Somewhere, he slipped in the drinking in public spaces, bottle wrapped in a black bag. He drank until his pores sent out malodorous fumes. With this foul smell, Nyna began to associate, obsessively, the ruin of her family.
While gathering his T-shirts, jeans, and oddly yellowing kurta-pyjamas for wash, she held her nose away from the sharp stench of the sweat-alcohol cocktail. In the evenings, when Shomu turned on his charm, she knew at once that the dance of desire on his tongue had begun. She reacted with her equal-and-opposite desire to somehow stop him and save the family's evening. But with each passing minute, it became obvious that Shomu was losing himself (happily) to his fluid lover.
Nyna would then stomp into another room in tears, pull out her worry beads, complain to God or the children. Shomu, in exchange, would resort to another bottle of whiskey. He'd then begin to levitate above Nyna and the happenings in his own house with ease. Like an ancestor long gone, he'd look at his family, laugh at their jokes, share their joys and, at the suggestion of sorrow, 'smoke' out of the window like a genie. Sometimes, he'd turn to the TV horror channel or his limited collection of black jokes.
But mostly he just stayed away‹with a smile. Often, like a sutradhar, the narrator of a play, he had philosophical asides, and he meant to recall them later, but his brains quickly shut them up in the securest shells available. Nothing returned at daybreak.
In the mornings, it was back to the ordinary Shomu. Nyna saw him stay on in bed, flat on his tummy, face under the pillow, and his legs shaking restlessly. 'Chhee! What a man!' she'd think. 'Never kept one promise in his whole bloody life!'
When Shomu vowed to go sober 'this time', he meant it. Really. He had tried many times, seen counselors, been to rehab centres, read books, joined a meditation class, and was still a knee-jerk member of Alcoholics Anonymous. In his more resolute hours, he'd mutter, "I know I have to really hit rock-bottom, and that'll do it. I'll stop drinking." And often when he drank, it was in this search for his rock-bottom.
For his other persona, all this changing business was getting to be tiring. There was something about Nyna too, he reasoned, that made drinking the problem it was for him. Take the fact that Nyna had suddenly become excessively hairy -- which she said, was due to his drinking. That the children weren't performing in school‹it was his drinking. That the servants didn't stick around‹it was his drinking.
After all, his brother in Canada never drank water, only beer. But his wife didn't care. And here, in India, when he had been at 'simply the beer stage,' Nyna taunted him non-stop, in front of her family especially. The family would bury their smiles politely. Shomu would be left twisting his arms. Some kind of power struggle was beginning to accompany every mention of alcohol. At first, it made him angry, but later it led him to an equation: dump guilt in exchange for the humiliation.
When someone at AA suggested that she was responsible for part of the problem and perhaps should take responsibility for his healing too, Nyna prodded Shomu to quit AA instead.
As he grew more callous, he sat before his children and let them watch him mix pills into his drinks. For Nyna, nothing was more unpardonable. Shomu was not only teaching their children to drink, but also demonstrating 'those spiking tricks.' Her heart shrank in fear. So, once in the midst of breaking an egg, she suddenly turned to him and banged his head with one of his own ex-bottles. There was no casualty; though when he did the same to her on another occasion, she had to get three stitches.
Two days later, she told the other girls at work that it was her husband and no freak accident--as she might have pretended earlier in their marriage--but that he had been drunk when he banged upon her skull. If they talked, so what? (Except that's what led the boss to get on the accelerator.) She needed to get it out. She typed most of the day and read Le Carré at lunch. In the evening, she went home earlier than usual, threw out some whiskey from a bottle, and poured water into it. As if Shomu would not know. That night after he finished his bottle, he went out and returned at 2 a.m. He scratched the door instead of ringing the bell, and it wasn't out of consideration. He was on all fours. If Nyna couldn't accept Shomu the biped, Shomu like this? Never.
She took the bus to Shirdi.
Mullick smiled to humour Nyna, the way only a boss might his subordinate. His veins felt bloated with expectation as he eyed her momentarily. She tried to fit her long legs into the tight space between the bus seats. It wasn't working. She shook off her stilettos with a clumsy shudder of her legs. Feet free, she relaxed and shut her eyes. Her soft, round face had its eddies and pouches. 'The chinks in the armour,' he thought, before he got lost in the "News and Views" of his magazine.
One stop before the bus was to arrive in Shirdi, a man jumped in and began distributing visiting cards: Hotel Nandan Borde and Ladge. To one side was a computer brick marketing other services: Taxi to Main Temple, Room Service, TV and Cable, Warm and Friendly Staff, All Other 4-star Amenities and Facilities Available. Nyna sat up.
"Shall we go there? Looks suited to our purpose," said Mullick. "Better, no? Where we'll go hunting now? It's just a matter of a day. Not the best for you, but anyhow it'll pass as long as you are there next to me." His voice dropped with the weight of his love.
Nyna noted his stylised hairdo, like someone had taken a curling brush, and piled wave after wave upon his skull. Then, there was his high forehead, eyes with black pupils enlarged by thick glasses. A benign tumour on his forehead formed a useless distraction‹neither flattering, nor the most unattractive feature. She wasn't sure which part of him was stiffer, his lips or his eyes or his neck.
"You are lost in your own world," Mullick said. "You don't like it?"
"No, of course I do. Even taxi facility is there."
"What taxi? I have done all the sight-seeing there is to be done around here. Haven't you, Babe?"
"Just, I was thinking of going to the temple... Shirdi Saibaba does miracles. I believe in him."
"What miracle you want, jaan? You've never told me you wanted anything. Promotion? Pay raise?" She thought he laughed diabolically. "Your promotion is assured, no?"
"No. Not that." This was her secret: Her mind was full of Shomu. Was he saying something about her promotion? She bristled. No one was doing her any favours. She deserved the next grade.
"Then, what?" His eyes looked steadier than ever. Normally, this look would unnerve her into her cute yes-sir mode. She had often admired his ability to be in control. He always knew what to say and do. People weakened in front of him without his ever raising his voice. And at home he maintained a wife who was a smiling blob of security. But in this love-love situation, Nyna found it easy to rebel.
"I told you, no, it's not the promotion."
"Then what else? Love?"
"Since we're here in Shirdi, might as well make the best of it." The brave face was difficult to put on. Shomu had so spent her. Yet, he filled her in strange ways, she had to admit.
"Exactly. My Nyna babe, we're going to make the best of it!" Nothing she could do now would allow her to get out of the situation. The boss's agenda had been finalised when he had proposed this day out, for "dictation in the field‹what's that Tagore's experimental school called? Yeah, Shantiniketan style".
In the air-conditioned room, Mullick, with a loaded flourish, pulled something from his pocket. It was a small, white metal ring with an image of the Shirdi Saibaba embossed on it.
"I want your ring finger," he demanded.
She gave him her right one, missing neither the touch of romance, nor the inexpensiveness of the ring. Why did that make her feel humiliated? In the confusion, being coy seemed easiest.
He always began at melting point. "So now, you can tell me what miracle you want?"
"Oh nothing. Forget I said that."
"If nothing, you can tell me, no? Why you want to suffer alone?" He came closer, placed a hand upon her shoulder, and ferociously tugged her towards him. "This is what I always say. Say it and get it out. Don't I always tell you all, the confidential things even? Top-level company secrets? I trust you and you can't trust me? I insist you tell me."
"Unnnn." He was slurping all over her lips and nose and chin. "Tell me, tell me." He was undoing her resolve. "Share your secrets, darling. I love you. Share it all." Shomu, came a racing thought, had no use for her sob stories. He claimed they were what made him drink. Her tear glands had gone turgid.
Mullick meanwhile, had figured out that it was a zip he had to tackle, not hooks. Relieved, he pulled the ring down the complex links. And only to distract him she said, "I just wanted to sit under Sai Baba's favourite tree. I wish some answers would come to me too as it did to him. How to make Shomu notŠ." She stopped. Mullick's eyes gloated. He loved vulnerability at his feet.
'Rat!' she called herself. 'Rat, rat, rat!' Betraying her own husband. The man who could hurt her so much, who had emptied her, 'hirsuted' her, was the one she was suddenly filled with a robust love for. Just that morning she had told Shomu to come home early to be with the children, and help them with their homework (before his drink). He'd agreed. That way he was completely reliable. The kids loved their evenings with him.
She suffered Mullick's sense of romance by cancelling it against the graces of the resident Baba. By correlating her boss's mannerisms to his lunch-eating patterns. By hiding her face in that black forest of a refuge on his chest. And, when that didn't do enough for her, she studied the revolution of the fan blades. She considered painting a small film on the fan in her kids' room. Man meets woman, they fall in love, they marry, and then they go round and round‹speed determined by some 5-speed regulator. The children would love it. She would share this idea with them, first thing upon her return.
And, as for Shomu's reaction to this Shirdi episode? She deliberated. She would come clean, of course, tell him it was no ordinary field trip after all. They had always had a wonderfully honest relationship. He would someday understand. He knew the pain his drinking had brought her. Perhaps even this trip would be that anticipated 'rock-bottom," his trigger to sobriety. And someday also they'd laugh together at Mullick, at his fumbling fingers and sudden success with the zip, and feel the joy of knowing that he wouldn't be confiding thus in his wife.
But supposing Shomu didn't sympathise, supposing he turned aggressive upon seeing the branding love bites below her collar bone? Then what hope did she have? Worse, she realised, with this one diversion, she had lost her greatest right‹the right to nag.
"Relax, Babe. I'll cover you with gold and diamonds from head to toes," Mullick coaxed on. "Relax, my dollŠ."
Now, the clattering, muddy luxury bus was on the outskirts of Mumbai, returning with the day-trippers. They were running late due to a sudden downpour. Nyna was restless. The children would have eaten. Shomu must have 'started' his evening. Sometimes he didn't drink. Perhaps today when he was responsible for the little ones, he wouldn't.
Mullick, now settled in his seat with his magazine, had curiously turned into a spermatozoa in glasses, a spermatozoa which had found its ovum. He yawned. Nyna fiddled with the ring. Now she had a new possession. Something heavy and metallic amalgamated with her heart. She would have to lie a trillion times tomorrow. At the office. In the train. Everywhere. She felt she deserved one of those famous miracles of the Baba.
The traffic was inching forward in the dark. Large wipers fought the rain and mud on the windscreen, up, down, and again, up, down, and again. What miracle would stop this choking rhythm? For a while, she turned to the side window. A blind beggar, reeking of strange spirits, came to serenade her, making beautiful promises about her marital life. More children‹a hundred sons. Almost grateful, she dropped her ring into his dark tin.
(Vibha Vasi has worked as a journalist and editor for the last twenty-two years in a variety of fields and currently edits for a large publishing house in Mumbai. Having earned an M.A. in English Literature, she is working on a Ph.D. in First Nation Literature. Vasi has published two children's books with Tata Donnelley (Mumbai), as well as poems and stories in literary magazines.)