Fiction | ‘The Flat Pillow’ by Sudhir Srinivasan | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

It was the most unusual place, and yet, it didn’t seem strange to be there. I felt like I had always belonged there — like I’d lived there all of my 34 years, like I’d suffered there my entire lifetime. It felt like it had always been as overcast in the barren fields that stretched as far as the eye could see. It felt like the dark clouds had always hung this low — like if I could just jump high enough, I could be among them. It had never rained though. There was always the threat, but it had never. I imagined that if it eventually rained, it would pour for a thousand days. It was like the sea ahead that always raged, that always threatened to run amok, but didn’t. It churned and agitated, but just wouldn’t break into the shore… almost like it were held back by invisible chains. 

An expansive cloud of grey near the sea’s horizon seemed to be growing by the minute—a mega cloud that seemed to merge with the sea, that seemed to emerge from within. It had always been just past twilight here. There was neither light, nor darkness. You saw only in greys. I’d always been chained to the lonely, old tree amid the fields — unable to move, lacking the will to set myself free, so resigned, so drained of energy that it must have been weeks since I exchanged a glance with the person chained next to me.

***

Something had been growing between us, something toxic, something ugly… something I think we were both equally guilty of feeding. It seemed to be thriving on our growing apathy, our quick temper. I sensed it gaining strength in the long periods of silence. And this Sunday evening was deafeningly silent. It seemed like the sort of day when a single word could detonate all the suppressed tension of years. It had seemed like that for many months. Not unlike many friends I knew, Nithya and I had started maintaining an unhealthy balance between bickering and apathy. On anniversaries and birthdays, we took a break from driving each other crazy. That’s when we remembered we were to love each other. I thought of them as the fuel days. A good fuel day got us going for weeks. An intimate night got us going for months without as much as a handshake. I assumed we would do this for life. I wanted to. I’m sure she did too. And wasn’t this just how it was supposed to be?

We both recognised the slow, sure descent, but pretended it wasn’t the case. We trusted the routine. Drinking Fridays, Netflix Saturdays, cooking Sundays… Drinking Fridays got quieter, Netflix Saturdays became WhatsApp Saturdays, and cooking Sundays, well, they had started turning into Swiggy Sundays. We persisted though, more out of habit than any real affinity. Every time the tension was threatening to turn unbearable, a fuel day came along, and the rickety vehicle hurtled along. But on this Sunday evening, I realised it had been a while since we had had a fuel day.

I realised, flopped on my bed, that I had been staring at the ceiling for far too long. I looked at her — in case she thought it weird that I had been staring at nothing for too long. With her hair tied into a bun — which she knew I hated — she looked transfixed too… by the charms of her mobile phone. Dully, disinterestedly scrolling. Her neatly manicured thumbs involved in a sort of dance battle on the mobile screen. Had this been another day, I’d have picked up my phone too—my new upgraded iPhone which I got because isn’t that what you are supposed to do when they come out with a new version? I too would have refreshed social media feed until the eyes shut down in part boredom and part fatigue. But something felt different today. I sensed my mind exploding with anger. It didn’t help that she was smiling as she was messaging someone—some guy at work. Who he was, I didn’t care. And it’s not like I didn’t trust her. I just didn’t understand why she wasn’t having that cheerful conversation with me, why I wasn’t worthy of that smile.

With my irritation threatening to form into unintended words, I turned away from her, searching for a distraction. I found it with the framed photo on the wall behind us. A photo from about seven years ago when we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. When I’d had less beard and more hair. When she’d… well, she still looked lovely. I realised that I had never told her how attracted I was to her physically, after all these years; I had not wanted her to think that’s all the love was about. Eventually, I figured she knew anyway.

We had been in a relationship for years before this photo had been taken—by the waiter of a seaside restaurant in Chennai suburbs. When we drank and smoked and ate at restaurants, we scowled at couples fiddling with their phones. We promised we would never become one of them—that we would show them. It was a time when our palms thrived in contact, our bodies capitalizing on every half-chance for an embrace. 

Something about how I was craning my neck, to get a good look at the photo, might have seemed strange, because she looked away from her phone—at me, at last—with a quizzical look. The edges of her thin eyebrows went up and down in a hurry. I shook my head to indicate everything was all right, thank you very much. Her eyes promptly made the expected trip back to her phone. And I turned again at the photo. 

She had gifted it for an anniversary—a gift not just to me, but to us. She was never one to forget the fuel days. I was the passive one, the sponge who soaked everything in. It was what she had originally liked about me: my quiet countenance. Most guys she had met before me had looked to charm her with incessant chatter. I remembered how hard she had to work to pry out information on our first date. Which composer do you like better, AR Rahman or Ilaiyaraaja? What’s your favourite film? What do you think about Ayn Rand? In hindsight, it was more an interview than a first date, and she had loved that she had to work to know me. I had loved that she did.

I wondered if she had outgrown her love for all my silence. Just a week ago, in a ridiculous squabble over an empty water bottle, I had shut down out of instinct, and she spent an entire evening coaxing, coercing, and eventually yelling for me to say something.

I noticed the dust coating the frame. This was my gift: Spotting damage. Dust on appliances, dirt on pillow covers, cobwebs in wall corners, ants around dustbins… I had the eyes for damage, and the hands to rectify them. This was our understanding. She would create; I would repair. She made more money, I was in charge of the banking. She did the cooking, I was in charge of the cleaning and refrigeration. She financed the purchase of clothes, I was in charge of the washing. She created, I protected. She was the Brahma, I was the Vishnu.

Over the last year. I’d stopped caring as much about maintenance. I wanted to see if she would once care to notice the dust, at least once take the responsibility of cleaning something as small as our photo frame. She didn’t. She wouldn’t. And while I had once made my peace with my judgment that she couldn’t, I was no longer able to. A couple of days back, on Friday, she glanced at our bedroom photo and spoke fondly about the day when it was taken—about our date. And yet, she hadn’t noticed that it needed cleaning, that it was no longer what it was. 

I felt the pressure rising. The taps on her phone seemed to be growing louder and louder until I could bear it all no more.

I caught myself saying, “What are we doing?”

***

It turned out that the distant cloud was not pregnant with rain, it was with dust. After what seemed like years of gathering, the cloud finally hit the shore, the impact of the storm a hundred times worse than its ominousness had suggested. The dust arrived in tidal waves, the all-consuming grey engulfing everything in its wake. Before I could think, before I could give up, I was within it, muted by its chaos, suffocated by its rage. I shut my eyes to stop the burning. It didn’t matter. The dust seemed to begin invading me. It was in my eyes. It was seeping into my nose. I was becoming it. I was becoming dust.

I knew that the only way out was to try and wrench myself free. I turned at the unrecognizable woman next to me for help, but I may as well have not. She was at the mercy of the storm, her body limp. I had to get out. And for the first time in years, I tried to break free off the chains. I didn’t understand why the thought hadn’t occurred to me before, why for so long I had let myself be tied. The chains were too tight, and the links had settled comfortably into my skin. I tugged in vain, I let out a scream of effort that even I couldn’t hear.

Perhaps in retaliation, a fresh gale of dust pushed me back into the tree trunk, tighter into the chains. My back burned, as if on fire. I dimly became aware of the growing blisters, and it dawned on me that those on my arms weren’t from being chained to the tree for a long time. They were from being in contact with it. This was no ordinary tree, this was a manchineel. It had been poisoning me, and had likely done the same to the strange woman next to me. She must have died. I hadn’t heard from her for weeks, hadn’t seen her move for days. I tried to sneak a glance at her, eyes screwed up in pain and dust. I saw a lifeless, grey shadow.

I shut my eyes, and felt the dust invading my body, my mind. I was going to be killed.

***

 “Aan?” she mustered, chained still by the light of her phone.

“What… are… we… doing?” I repeated. “Nithya, look at me. This is serious.”

She realised something was up, perhaps because I was hardly one to say much, let alone say something was serious. I saw her running the possibilities in her mind: “What did I forget? Did I leave the oven on? Perhaps I forgot to lock the door? What is it now?”

When you have lived with someone long enough, a glance is a sentence; a small stare, a paragraph. 

I considered her for a moment, unsure of what I wanted to say. The strong feeling was a sense of finality about how things were.

She dropped her precious phone, and looked at me, her eyes kind in a way she couldn’t change even if she wanted to. Everyone from waiters to call drivers to house helps to her team members to my friends, loved her. You couldn’t not. Her eyes looked at you in a way that made you feel a special connection with her. Her look softened me a bit.

But she could see that I was struggling to communicate—she always saw that and was the only person to. 

“What is it?” she said, her voice as soft as her eyes.

Perhaps due to her kindness, or perhaps out of sheer frustration, my eyes welled up.

Her eyes widened in response—the equivalent of an ‘Oh!’—and she pulled me in for a hug. Even while letting her pull me in, I tried to remember when we had last hugged. My head resting on her chest, her hand rummaging through my hair, everything seemed almost all right again. I almost succumbed, but the realisation that it had to take my tears for a gesture of intimacy, breathed life back into my anger. I pulled back from the pity embrace, and drew in a long breath, while she looked a bit taken aback. 

Suddenly, I knew what I should ask her.

“Are you happy?” I asked, relieved that I had finally been able to form words.

She straightened, and looked at me, like I’d asked a stupid question. Her perfectly waxed eyebrows curved in confusion. She waited a moment to see if I would explain myself, but she knew I wasn’t going to. So, she said, “Happy? About what?”

“I don’t know,” I said, and remembered how she had always laughed at how I used ‘I don’t know’ as a way to buy time to think. In Tamil, the language we spoke in, I began many sentences with, “Therla…”, the equivalent of ‘I don’t know’.

Therla,” I repeated again. “About everything. About life. About you and me. About us.”

“Well, I don’t know what you want me to say.” 

I still didn’t know where I was going with this conversation; I didn’t care. I was just happy to have addressed something that had been gnawing at me for weeks, or was it months?

“Are you?” she asked, catching me by surprise.

I stared at the tube light, unable to meet her eye. The heat of her stare bored into me; I knew that if I met her eyes, my anger would begin melting. I refused the invitation. 

“Are you going to say something?” she asked, after each second seemed to feel longer and longer.

My head exploded with a thousand things to say. I wanted to talk about how she gave me nothing for my birthday this year. I wanted to point out that it had been months since we had had sex. And oh, when had she last said she loved me? Now she wanted to know if I was happy? I wanted to say, “No.” But as usual, I couldn’t form the word, that single, small word.

My eyes darted to see her sunk into the bed again, unlocking her phone. They caught her reading nothing on it, staring at her wallpaper—some photo of an erupting volcano. My anger rose.

“Yes, look at your phone,” I said. “That will make everything better.”

“I don’t understand. What do you want me to do now?” She sat up again, looking at me in mock earnest. “What do you want me to say? What are you trying to say anyway?”

I wanted her to see how her indifference was killing me, killing us.

Perhaps it was the fear that she would sink into the bed again, and get lost in the light of her phone, that made me scream.

“I WANT YOU TO GIVE A SHIT ABOUT ME!”

***

The storm grew worse. The grey seemed to be turning black—or was I going blind? Coughing, eyes shriveled, I knew I was going to die without help or rescue, like the woman next to me had. Who had tied me to this toxic tree? Who was this dead woman? But this was not the time to spend precious time thinking about such things.  

I howled in pain. The welts and blisters across my body were spreading. Some of them had even begun bleeding. I tried to pull myself away from the tree, eyes watering up in ever-increasing pain. I knew I had to try one last time before giving up. I drew in the deepest breath I could muster, coughing as dust particles accepted the invitation. I tried again, face held closer to my chest.

And then, I tugged at the chains, letting out a primal scream of effort. The dust choked me, but I tugged. My arms seemed like they would give way, but I tugged. My vocal chords threatened to tear, but I tugged. I tugged with the last breath I could muster from my reserves, and then some more. I screamed and screamed, dimly realising that I was out of breath and energy. It was over; I had failed… 

But then, it happened. The chains gave way. The momentum of my effort caused me to fall face first. Bleeding, surrounded by sheets of grey, drained of energy, I gathered myself up. Out of pure instinct, I turned away from the direction of the storm. As I cupped my face to try and get in some breaths, I caught a glimpse of the tree, its vast trunk, its flailing branches. It seemed alive, and possessed. It seemed to want me dead.

I shuffled to the right, past the dead woman, so I could look for some shelter, away from the tree, away from the vengeful sea. I tried to make sense of this place through the burning chaos. Who had done this to me? Was someone watching? What did they want? My palms still shielding my face, I was walking past the dead woman, when I caught a brief glimpse of her face—before another wave of dust masked her again. My knees buckled in shock. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be, I told myself, taking another step towards her. It didn’t make sense.

I fell forward, towards her. The fallen figure of this familiar woman closer than it ever had been, though I had been bound right next to her for months—or was it years? I knew what I had to do, as I sat kneeling, my face in front of hers, and yet, with a world of grey between us. I exposed my face to the storm, the fine dust rushing on to my face like a swarm of locusts towards crop. Eyes screwed up to try and get a look at her, I brushed the hair off her face. I collapsed in horror once more. It couldn’t be, but it was. It made no sense. 

It was Nithya. And she was dead.

***

“But I do! I do care about you!” she said.

Care? I didn’t want care. I wanted love. Why wouldn’t she say that word anyway?

She probably heard me.

Dei,” she said, using a term of endearment she knew I always liked. “This is how all relationships evolve. The butterflies are fleeting, negligible. Listen to me. Why don’t you sleep this over? I swear you will feel better tomorrow. You always do.”

I hated the condescension, the implication that I didn’t understand how love worked, the refusal to own up to her mistake, the reluctance to promise to do better.

“You promise to sleep now?” she asked, looking at me like a mother would at her infant.

The patronising infuriated me.

“So, that’s it then?” I said, unleashing a volley of complaints. “There’s nothing wrong with how you are? How we are? Nothing wrong with the dusty photos? Nothing wrong with forgetting birthdays? Nothing wrong with not having sex? Nothing wrong with not saying ‘I love you’?”

“What dusty photos?” she said, more to herself, than to me.

I could see I had pushed her to a corner with the tirade. How was she going to defend herself?

She didn’t. She attacked.

“You think you are so perfect?” she fought back, trying hard to make her eyes look not so kind. “You barely talk to me.” It hurt that she would pick something that I already knew was bad about myself. 

She continued, “You walk around the house, doing chores. You boss over me with instructions. And it’s all about you anyway. We buy what you want. We throw away what you want. We maintain it like you want. Even when we watch TV or listen to music, it’s what you want. Ask yourself. Ask yourself truly when you last showed interest in something I wanted? Ask yourself if you cared to ask. Ask yourself when you last showed interest in me!”

She wasn’t done.

“Just last week…” she said, gathering her breath. “Just last week, I wanted to talk to you about a problem at work. You remember? You were stuffing the pillows, complaining about how quickly the foam seemed to be getting flattened…”

I remembered. She had been complaining for over a week about the flat pillows hurting her neck, and I had been annoyed by her refusal to do nothing about it.

“It’s a FUCKING PILLOW!” she yelled. “WHO CARES?” 

She went on, as though she were repeating lines she had been running in her head for days. “I needed to talk… about something at work. But you barely heard me. I started talking, and you cut in, asking me not to keep folding the pillow in half… It’s what you do always. It’s always, ‘Nithya, don’t do this; Nithya, don’t do that.’”

In my defence, in the case of this pillow, I had long noticed that she had the habit of folding it, so she could have something soft and puffy to lean on when watching bedroom television. But I couldn’t remember what work problem she was talking of. 

“I could see you were not paying attention. So, I lost interest. I saw you didn’t care…”

Suddenly, I noticed something.

“Do you know what you are resting on now?” I asked.

She didn’t understand for a fleeting second, and then, it dawned on her. She took the folded pillow from behind her and flung it away from the bed, towards the wall mounted television.

“HAPPY?” she yelled. “You are unbelievable!”

If she had listened to me about something as trivial as not folding a pillow, why would I have to keep repeating it? 

“This is just not working,” I caught myself saying, more out of frustration than out of any real intent.

It’s probably on account of how little I generally spoke that when I did say something, it often ended up sounding more serious than I meant.

She glared at me, a thousand knives of judgement. Her eyes forgot to blink. “What did you say?”

I didn’t know what to say.

“I heard you. What do you want then?” she asked.

Something heavy, something sinister seemed to be egging us on, manipulating our conversation. And we, who had barely spoken in weeks, couldn’t stop talking.

Therla,” I said. “Some peace of mind. For both of us.”

“What are you suggesting?”

Therla. Nothing.”

“It’s okay, you can say it,” she taunted.

My voice quivering, my eyes threatening to well up, I heard myself saying, “Just leave me alone.”

The tears that fell on her angry face won the race against my own. 

The silence hung heavy.

“Okay,” she said, wiping her tears fast, as though hoping that if she did it fast enough, I would forget that I had seen them. “I will stay at Gayathri’s place for a few days.” 

Gayathri was her old friend, who was barely a friend anymore. But Nithya would stay rather stay there, than at her parents’ home, where she knew the questions would pile up.

I couldn’t believe that her response was to leave to her friend’s place. So, I offered to leave instead. But she would have none of it. 

“I’ll talk to her tomorrow. By evening tomorrow, I will figure something,” she said.

I couldn’t think of anything to say. I didn’t even understand what had happened. Just minutes ago, we were both lying on the bed, set to repeat the same evening for many thousands of evenings. I looked on—my face an embodiment of ‘therla’—as she got up from the bed to retrieve her flung pillow. She carefully folded it in half and leaned back on it, before unlocking her phone.

I got up, my pillow tucked under my arm… my pillow without creases, in need of no restuffing. 

“I’ll be sleeping in the hall,” I muttered to nobody in particular, and dragged myself out of the bedroom, hardly able to process that this was all really happening. 

I was angry. 

But I was also sad.

***

Nithya was dead.

I didn’t understand. How could this be? How had I not recognised her, even though she had been chained right next to me for months? Could I have saved her? Was it my fault? This face that had brought me so much comfort and joy and love, now lifeless. This woman I had promised to save from all danger, from all grief, dead. 

The sudden thought that I could never have another conversation with her, exchange another joke, another laugh, take another selfie, watch another movie… it came as a crushing realisation. My eyes stung not just with dust, but a flood of tears. I held her lifeless hands, and kissed them instinctively, not knowing what else to do. The thought that she would have felt so much pain from the blisters, broke me. Had she screamed out to me for help? Had I not cared to look, to listen? I wish I were dead too. She deserved someone better than me, someone unselfish who would have remembered to save her too. 

I hated myself.

I screamed in self-loathing, a scream so loud and shattering that I could hear myself for the first time.

***

I woke up from the dream… groggy, disoriented. As the fog cleared, I realised that the tears from the dream were real. I felt my wet cheeks, and relief coursed through me. The tears were real, but the events were not. Everything was all right. Nothing had happened to her.

And then, the bitter events of last night came as a depressing realisation—the events that pushed me out of the bedroom, and onto the sofa in the living room. 

Somewhere, the clock struck five. The neighbourhood mosque began its prayers. 

I pulled the bed sheet off me and made for the bedroom, noticing the gentle streams of sunlight coming in through the windows, aware that it always cast a beautiful shadow of the window on the opposite wall. After drunken nights stretched to dawn, this shadow was usually our cue that it was time to get some sleep. 

I opened the door as gently as I could, and saw her fast asleep—in the same posture she was in, when I had last seen her: Sitting up, leaning on the deformed pillow, head facing in my direction. My heart skipped a beat when I remembered how similar the posture was to the way I saw her in my dream. Perhaps that’s what made me not shut the door as softly as I wanted to. 

She awoke with a jolt. Soon as she saw me, she averted eye-contact. Relief rushed through me again. She was really well. I stood near the door, watching. Hair still in a bun, pillow misshapen, her eyes bloodshot… A wave of affection for her washed through me. I stood still, saying nothing, frightened of what I could end up saying, wary of how it could make matters worse. After what seemed like hours, she turned, facing me again. 

Our eyes were locked. I was worried I’d see anger, but couldn’t find it. It didn’t seem like she was trying to make her eyes look unkind either.

When you have lived with someone long enough, a glance is a sentence; a small stare, a paragraph.

We looked at each other, into each other. We spoke wordlessly. We admonished, we forgave. Or so it seemed to me. After many minutes, that seemed like seconds, my lips cracked into a tiny hint of a smile. Her eyes responded by turning kinder than they already were. 

Look at us, they seemed to be saying. Look at what we are doing with something so beautiful. 

The conversation we had had the previous night felt like a distant memory I could scarcely relate to, or believe happened. That ugly something in our midst that was manipulating our conversation, seemed to have left.

She flung her arms wide.

I needed no invitation. My face hidden in the pillow behind her, my body thriving in our embrace, everything seemed all right again.

“Did you get any sleep at all?” I asked, taking care to remain still, so as not to affect the hug.

“I didn’t want to. I didn’t think I was going to, but I guess I did at some point,” she said, her sleep-voice recognisable by how it broke between words.

The hug thrived. The silence was comfortable.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“I’m sorry too,” she whispered. 

She hugged tighter.

“I love you,” I said. “And I’m an idiot.”

Suddenly, my words seemed just right.

In ever the lowest whisper, she said, “I know I don’t say this enough. But I love you too.”

In that embrace, with no intentions of stepping out of it soon, I couldn’t help myself. So, I ever so gently tried to straighten her pillow a bit. 

***


Sudhir is a writer and film critic from Chennai, and currently the Entertainment Editor of The New Indian Express newspaper.He has previously been employed by respectable publications including The Hindu and The Times of India.

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