Fiction | ‘Under a slice of the Bombay sky’ by Hema Nair | CWW

Nandini Barve was 36 years old in 1982. She worked for a transport company in their secretarial pool along with six other girls, two of whom were stenographers. The stenographers, who were younger and prettier, were chosen to go into the cabin of the bosses to take down their dictation. Nandini would then type them out on her Godrej typewriter, filling reams of paper. Some would get cyclostyled, some got filed away and yet others would be flown off to a distant city in a buff envelope with a transparent window. 

As soon as the 5 pm siren sounded, she put the paper in the appropriate tray and tucked the typewriter in for the night; in a pretty embroidered cover. She grabbed her bag, put in her lunch box which she had left to dry under her table and got up to leave. On her way out, she exchanged small talk and pleasantries with some of the other girls as they all joined the exodus moving out of the building. Nandini and Preeti found each other near the gate and fell into step with each other. They lived in the same neighborhood and kept each other company during the long commute home. Enroute they stopped at the local market for vegetables. Preeti prepped them during the train journey, while Nandini preferred to read. At home, she would not be faulted for chopping vegetables but if she whiled away time reading, that would be another matter. As the train pulled out of the station, Preeti pulled out her newspaper and a knife. The potatoes and brinjal were diced expertly and wrapped separately. Onions were not chopped there in deference to fellow commuters.

“The harami came late last night too,” Preeti said as she snapped the beans into bits in her vehemence, then looked up to see Nandini focused on her book. She nudged her.

“I said, he came home late last night too,” Preeti repeated.

Nandini sighed, put down her book.  “And did you ask him why?”

“What’s the use. He’ll just say he was working late and shout at me for something else.” Preeti tossed her head.

“Maybe he was,” Nandini ventured mildly.

“Ha! I could smell the sandalwood on him a mile away. Bhadwa saala.”

“Wasn’t it Navratna hair oil?” Nandini asked, puzzled.

Preeti gave her a look. “That was a year ago, Nandini. Don’t you remember? I took him to Siddhivinayak and made him swear on Dolly’s head. He had stopped seeing her then.”

Preeti looked down at the brinjal in her lap which was once whole, but now lay in pieces.

Thankfully Dolly’s head was still all right, Nandini thought. If her head was to explode at every instance of her father’s indiscretion, it would have been mighty inconvenient for Preeti. She stared out of the window at the hovels and advertisements ripping past. All the solutions for the problems of the world were on these walls. ‘Unable to grow a beard? We have the solution! 21 din me paisa double’. Bald patches, skin pigmentation, cheap housing, dance bars, sexual dysfunction and astrology. There were no answers for her, though.

The house was dark when she entered. She switched on the lights and lit the oil lamp in front of her Gods. The light streaming out of the house brought her daughter home like a fluttering little moth. She came up from behind and wrapped her arms around her mother. Nandini smiled, clasped her small hands with her own and turned around to look at her. Varsha, all of eight and the light of her life. Her husband and son would return home soon too and the day would wind down. After dinner, she found herself alone in the kitchen cleaning up. She relished these moments of solitude in the small, almost box like room and hummed to herself as she scrubbed and wiped. The rest of her family spread out over what remained of the flat. Four souls in 400 square feet of precious real estate in Bombay. The streetlight spread a warm glow on the world outside and she watching the moths clustered around the lamp, while her thoughts rambled aimlessly over the landscape of her life. She didn’t quite process that she was delaying the inevitable repose with her husband that was a ritual of the nights. Unlike Preeti’s husband, hers did not crave liaisons with assorted bottled fragrances. He only sought one scent. Chandrika soap – hers. When every steel surface shone and the floor was cleared of litter and grime, she ran out of excuses. She turned off the lights and tiptoed around her sleeping children in the small hall and made her way to the bedroom and her waiting husband.

Sunday was her favourite day. She woke up later than usual and drank her tea sitting down. Even though she was home all day and didn’t have to pack lunch, she preferred to cook lunch alongside breakfast, so as to be done with all the cooking in a couple of hours. Just like she would on a working day. On Sundays, it took longer, since she played the radio and was wont to sing along or swing to the beat sometimes, which seemed to delay her. The children were around somewhere, and her husband left to play cricket after breakfast. 

After cooking, she took the radio into the bathroom and hung it from a nail on the back of the door. She undressed and united her hair. A few strands fell over her breasts and tickled her dusky nipples. She looked at herself in the mirror and could only see her face and shoulders. Taking the mirror off the wall, she placed it on the wash basin supported by her bundled up clothes so it wouldn’t fall down. Now she could gaze at her body while she teased the strands of her hair. The tips of her nipples played hide and seek with those dark strands and her skin puckered into goosepimples. A shiver, like a low voltage electric current spread through her body. Her hands took on an urgency now – stroking, pinching, searching her body for that perfect burst of ecstasy. She eased down on the floor and poured water all over her body from the bucket. Hands moved faster across her body, now slick with moisture. Her fingers skimmed her lips, her breath fanning her fingers in short bursts of gasps and muted whimpers as she climaxed explosively around her hands.

It was evening when the children and their father came home. Nandini woke up from her weekend afternoon nap, and she was in the kitchen boiling chai and making bread pakora when they came. She dipped pieces of old bread in a curried batter of gram flour and deep fried them in oil. A clever combination of recycling and creativity that surprisingly transformed into a decadent taste. After a boisterous round of snatching the pieces of pakora and downing the chai, the children left for their neighbor’s house to watch TV. Her husband was sitting in the balcony, a small one, but it gave a slice of the Bombay sky. Nandini brought in his chai and a plate of pakoras and joined him there. Conversation was slow, as they sipped the chai. Dusk deepened and the air changed from blue to yellow. The streetlights came on. Her husband took the last pakora, broke it into two pieces and put one half into her mouth. Nandini looked at him and smiled as she chewed on it. She looked up at the sky and saw the few stars that could be seen through the haze of the Bombay skies.

Hema Nair took to writing fairly late in life. Her desire to study literature was thwarted by a predetermined career in medicine and better prospects. She is now a cardiac anesthesiologist and juggles her day job of taking children through heart surgery, with ungodly hours spent writing prose and poetry.

She has been published in The Hindu, and online magazines like Confluence, Madras Courier, Spark Magazine, Kitaab and The Good Men Project. She writes short fiction, essays, art review, book review and poetry. She lives in Bangalore, India.

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