Indrani is surprised that her breasts are still alert to the possibility of love, even now, when her love is permanently gone.
She stands in the centre of the room, clutching the laundry tight against her chest, feeling the hardening of her nipples against the cotton blouse while her eyes scan the skies beyond the French windows for the turquoise flash.
A pigeon with bright red eyes and a white spot at the base of its beak flies past the balcony, startling her. Almost immediately after, a cream coloured butterfly bobs past the lime tree. Just one more second to be sure, Indrani tells herself…one last second…okay, one final last second…one last ultimate second…
Has it, after all, just been a trick of light? The time is right, though. Winter is on its way out, giving way to the early buds of spring. Her husband’s words float up from somewhere deep inside her: ‘With so many species you can be sure, Indu, that an orgasm is happening on this planet at all times. Just imagine, millions of years of uninterrupted orgasm. I think the Universe might itself be one big orgasm. I mean, what else could a big bang be?’
The turquoise butterfly appears over the ledge of the balcony and dips below, as if inviting Indrani for a game of hide-and-seek. Indrani rushes through the French windows into the balcony and watches the butterfly bounce up to the taller branches of a guava tree. She tracks the butterfly as it hops from one flower to another, going back to a flower it has already visited, feeling it all over, poking it softly with its proboscis.
‘Look at it, just look at it,’ Indrani whispers her husband’s favourite phrase as she traces the flight of the butterfly. The butterfly has ridden the powerful easterly wind, arriving at its destination, it seems to Indrani, almost by accident. She knows, thanks to her husband that it is a Common Banded Peacock.
How do you do it, blue one? How do you, with your paper-thin wings, take on such a mighty wind? How do you reach exactly where you want to? Or do you just pretend that that is where you’ve always wanted to go? Is that your secret? What do I do with my secret? Who do I share it with?
The butterfly floats upwards towards the Neem tree near the wall of the housing society. A flock of ten (could even be twenty) dragonflies dart around the tips of a branch. Indrani wonders what attracts them to it. Two bumblebees circle each other noisily near the hollyhocks. A smile forms at the corner of her lips. Then her expression changes and she says aloud to them, knowing that they’ll understand, ‘I’ve lost my bumblebee,’ and collapses on the balcony floor, her head resting against the sun-warmed railing.
It didn’t make any sense. No, it didn’t it didn’t make any…of all things, a sailboat? She had never been, nor had ever wanted to be on a sailboat. They were miles out in the sea on a dinghy with a sail. Blue dinghy, white sail. Then the dolphins had appeared, smooth, wet and purple, mystifying the waters. He must have wheezed. Or he might have tried to reach out for her in his sleep while she dreamt the crazy dream. It still bothers her. What was she doing on a sailboat? Did the dolphins mean something? It didn’t make any sense. You aren’t allowed to die in your sleep, suddenly, without warning, while your partner is dreaming of a sailboat beside you. How could he be so selfish? How could he slip away so peacefully, leaving her so unprepared? He could have at least given her some advance notice.
His absence is like the round muddy stain on the floor of the balcony where a flowerpot used to be. Everyone can see the outline of the missing flowerpot, but only she sees the flower that grew in it. Only she remembers the shape of the petals, the texture of the leaves, the curve of the stamens. Only she remembers the fragrance of the flower. That’s what she misses the most. The smell of his sweat in the lonely hours of the night.
‘But, it’s all out of focus!’ her daughter protests.
‘What is this focus-shocus? I don’t care about focus. I don’t need any focus. He’s got a nice smile in it and that’s all I care about. You take your focus and live your life with it,’ Indrani shoots back.
‘You’re not the only one who’s lost someone special,’ her daughter says under her breath.
What do you know? You’ll be going back to your man tonight, Indrani thinks, but she can’t bring herself to say it.
Mother and daughter sit looking at the photograph. It’s a special photograph, taken the day she was sworn to secrecy, but Indrani can’t tell her daughter that. In the photograph, her husband has the trademark sandal-paste tilak on his forehead and a cup of coffee in his hand. The steam from the cup curls upwards, giving his face a slightly ghostly appearance. Still, his mischievous smile sparkles through like a diamond. Over the photograph it says in capital letters: ‘C. RAGHAVIAN CHAUDHARY’, and below it, in bold type: ‘Date of Expiry – 12 October 2019.’
‘You don’t have to visit me everyday,’ Indrani breaks the silence, trying to keep it casual. ‘I’ll be re-joining office tomorrow.’
Her daughter picks up her bag and walks out of the room. ‘I will come whenever I want to, hear me?’ she shouts from the door of the flat. ‘And how many times do I have to tell you, don’t put cardamom in my tea, it tastes like payasam! If you have to put something, put ginger…I like ginger in my tea, or is that too much to remember?’ and bangs the door shut.
Indrani sits holding the picture of her husband. She thinks of the time before the secret had entered her life. Their life. She is standing in the driveway, next to the tulsi shrub, drying her hair with sharp strokes of the towel when the movement catches her eye. She had initially thought that it was a tiny seed rolling with the breeze, but the thing had moved in a straight line at a regular pace. She had sat down to take a closer look but even while sitting down she couldn’t make out any body parts. She had bent closer to the ground, her nose directly above the insect, and followed its journey. Soon, she had lost all sensation of herself: of her eyes, of her nose, of her wet hair sticking to her waist and of her knees that shuffled on the driveway above the insect. When the insect burrowed under a guava leaf in its path, she, too, engrossed and inseparable with the tiny life, ducked her head. As the insect emerged from the other side of the leaf, Indrani had reached for it gingerly. ‘Don’t,’ her husband had called out from behind her, but it was too late. The moment her finger touched the insect, it burst with a tiny pop. All that remained was half-a-drop of something that looked like dew.
‘Tch, you’ve ended a long story,’ her husband had said.
‘A story that stretches to the beginning of time! That little thing was part of a long, unbroken narrative. Its parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and their parents to the power of ten, had successfully added a paragraph with each generation, and now you’ve ended the story.’
‘What about our story?’ Indrani asks the photograph in her hands. ‘Why must I bear the secret alone now? Couldn’t you have just listened?’
‘It’s easy, Indu. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Trust me, we’ll be like bumblebees,’ he had said, sipping the coffee.
‘No, I won’t agree to this. What’s wrong with you?’ she protested.
‘But, no one will ever know. It’ll be our secret, I promise.’
‘You don’t know how the world works. Word spreads. I’m not agreeing to this. It’s a small place, people will get to know. Are you unhappy about something?’
‘Come on, Indu, I wish you gave it some serious thought. It’s a purer way of living…imagine being a bumblebee,’ he insisted.
‘No! We’ve been married only four months. Are you unhappy with something? Is there something that I do not do which you’d like me to?’
‘Why should I be unhappy?
‘Then why do we have to do this?’
‘Because…’ he said holding her hand.
‘No don’t! I forbid you to bring it up again. What wild thoughts, and we’ve been married only four months! If you love me, you won’t bring it up again. Do you understand?’
He had had his way. On the way back from the Registrar’s office, immediately after they had got the divorce, he had pointed out a group of turquoise butterflies in the small park outside the office complex.
‘Look, look, look at them, Indu, just look at them! Common Banded Peacocks!’
They had stood and watched.
‘Can you see how they’re mud-puddling? Look! You’ll see them releasing jets of water from their behinds. They’re actually gathering nutrition from the mud. The males will pass on the nutrients – sodium and amino acids – to the females for healthy children. Now we are free like these butterflies.’
‘Are we like butterflies or bumblebees? Make up your mind.’
‘Like both, actually, but if you like these butterflies better, we’re like them!’
‘God help us… I hope we don’t land up in the mud,’ she said walking ahead.
‘Don’t worry, He will help us, but we’ll keep it a secret from Him, too!’ he had said with that sparkle in his eyes that she misses so much.
Sitting in the sun-soaked balcony, she clearly remembers that afternoon so many years ago. The sun had emerged after a week of constant rain. The light was pouring into a tree, lighting it up from the inside like a lantern. It was quiet and they had sat on a bench in the park and she had felt, and it was the only time in her life that she’d had that feeling, that quiet, light and soft feeling that everything always was everything else and was always so and was forever and always absolutely right.
Indrani reaches for the balcony railing and pulls herself up. She searches the Neem tree but can’t spot the butterfly anywhere. She leans her torso over the black metal railing, enjoying its warmth on her stomach. She closes her eyes and spreads her arms. Her saree’s pallu catches in the breeze and floats up towards the flat on the third floor. She feels the tug of the pallu, which has ballooned out in the breeze like a sail. Oh, okay, she thinks as she leans far out over the balcony, eyes closed and smiling, so that’s what the white sail was for.
Payasam: a type of pudding made by boiling milk and sugar with rice, and flaoured with cardamom.Salil Chaturvedi writes short fiction and poetry. He lives on the island of Chorao in Goa. He is the author of In The Sanctuary of a Poem, and Ya Ra La Va Sha Sa Ha, an award-winning Hindi poetry collection.