Once upon a time the man I was married to returned home after a week’s business trip in Mumbai. I found a packet of unused condoms cuddled up carelessly in the corner of his travel bag. I was picking one thing after another mindlessly, sometimes not knowing what an object was or meant. It took me a while to figure what the small plastic packet was or contained. I suppose it had gone to the point where he didn’t care if he were found out, knowing I wouldn’t say anything. I couldn’t be angry. I didn’t try to be sad. Instead, I turned and looked at the massive rose bouquet he had bought for me, from the biggest florist in Mumbai apparently. The bunch of roses was evidently part of the many I-know-you-know, rituals we had wordlessly invented over the years. It must have been a more rewarding trip than usual. The bouquet sat on our expensive marble-top round corner table like a big blob of blood wrapped in plastic with petals growing along its sides. It seemed to grow larger every moment, staring at me through its many thorny eyes. I stood there stuck to a fleshy fear till I heard the oven ping, a machinic summon announcing that my husband’s dinner was ready to be dished out. The bouquet cast its slow stony stare on me one last time, like a massive monster suddenly brought to life, turning slowly to get a fuller view of my increasingly stripped self as my feet dragged me out of the room.
I have always hated roses. Roses remind me of my first loss of blood, of my first period which happened when I was in school, in the middle of an English literature class. It was the 23rd of July, a week after my 12th birthday. I remember we were reading Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, a poem about two sisters one of whom contracts a strange disease that sucks her lifeblood away. I remember the feeling when I began to bleed, not knowing how and why. I went to an all-girls school and had heard of periods earlier. It was a necessary condition; I had been told, towards becoming a woman.
I remember I was immediately sent off to the toilet with another girl. Inside, I began to shiver and sob, out of fear and helplessness; for I could not stop the blood, I was silently losing. From the toilet window, I saw the red roses in our school nursery before the white statue of Virgin Mary, perfectly trimmed blood-red roses that seemed to stare at me like the grinning goblins I was reading about in class. Goblins that drank up your lifeblood and turned matter into mangy pulp that seemed like something I frequently smelt when pushed towards the pants of big men who hugged me. I hated the way the roses stared at me, hated the way they resembled the blood seeping out of me. Roses. Red. Blood. Loss. Blood-red roses always reminded me of a loss I could not control.
So when my husband brought me the expensive rose bouquet, I could not help thinking of my first blood-loss, of the grinning goblins that stared at me from the flower beds before the white statue of the Virgin as I stood scared and sobbing inside our school toilet, fearful of the blood that flowed out of me. The beautiful bouquet was a reminder of a loss I had known from a very young age. The cold kisses my husband planted on my cheeks before the admiring eyes of office parties had already hollowed me up. But being wedded to a handsome husband who pecks you periodically in public while treating you like an object privately teaches you how to deal with a loss that has no name. One could say I had developed a call for silently enduring it over the years. You get used to experiences, even unpleasant ones, till those become regular rituals in your life that you carry out without thinking, like brushing your teeth and pouring powdered detergent in washing machine pockets. Till those become bearable, then nearly necessary, then perversely pleasurable. I may have actually begun to enjoy my endurance.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a great fortune must be in want of a wife. Soham Sengupta. 29 years old. 6 feet 1. Handsome. IIM Bangalore graduate. Divisional Manager of IBM, Saltlake, Kolkata. Salary Rs 14.5 lakhs per annum. Wants a beautiful, same-caste and convent-educated woman in the 23-26 age range. The newspaper matrimonial dished out data and read like a sinister cloud of words with an ink-grey border when I was first forced to see it. Everyone had agreed that this man had it all: job, height and caste. Besides, his family was known to ours through the white-collar social circles in South Kolkata. The reports on his moral character were not unfavourable.
Aneesha Sengupta. 23 years. 5 feet 6. Fair, beautiful. Loreto-educated with a degree in English with honours. Followed by an MA at Calcutta University. Of course looking for a fair and handsome man with a great job.
I fit the bill perfectly for all parties.
We were married many years ago through assiduously executed Hindu wedding rituals followed by a posh party at the Calcutta Club. Almost everyone I had ever seen since I was three had come, including the distant uncle who tried to fondle me in our terrace room after forcing me to see pornographic pictures when I was thirteen. Everyone seemed visibly overjoyed at the perfect marriage match.
My friend Dyakha Dutta was not there at my wedding.
Dyakha had left for Kalimpong to take up an English teacher’s job in a boys’ boarding school.
Dyakha and I had known each other since our MA days. We read Rossetti, Rich and Plath together in the tiny studio apartment at Jodhpur Park where she stayed as paying guest. She grew up in a neighbourhood named Master Colony in Tezpur, Assam, and spoke Bengali with an accent that I tried hard to appropriate. We had fast become friends, chatting, sharing stories and taking long walks from College Street. By the time we first kissed, we both knew we loved each other, with all the emotions and desires of the deeply excited, fresh and free.
I was 20, had never been in love earlier and saw a new world opening up before me through Dyakha. We would often skip classes at Calcutta University, walk along the old bookstores in College Street that leaned out onto the stone pavements with their musty smells as the evenings fell along slanting streetlights and tramcar bells. Dyakha would describe the street lamps across the little lanes of Master Colony where she grew up and how the old flour mills in her neighbourhood stood like ancient storytellers who don’t speak anymore.
Dyakha worked during weekends in a tutorial centre as English teacher and as a proof-reader for a College Street publishing house to fund her keep. She wanted to be a novelist. I was certain she would become one. I hoped to see the name Dyakha Dutta on a lovely novel jacket, a novel about Naxalite women in 1960s Kolkata. Or about ULFA women in 1990s Assam. She always said I should write as well. Not novels. She felt I am suited for short stories that crystallised episodic experiences or a mosaic of memories.
Stories that mixed memories of things that did happen, things that may have happened and things that should have happened.
This is perhaps one such story.
Dyakha and I first made love on the 13th of April on her small wrought iron bed flanked by lilac curtains and a print of Sappho kissing her lyre by Jules-Élie Delaunay. We chose the cruellest month. April. We made love on the 13th of every month. 13 was our favourite number.
Soon we started spending long afternoons in Dyakha’s tiny one-room flat in Jodhpur Park, staring at the ceiling and reciting Rich together after making love. Then we would kiss and start again. Dyakha made Assam tea, and we baked cookies in a tiny oven we bought together from a hippie second-hand store in Free School Street. We would also scramble eggs with cheese and cook meat stew together using the herbs bought from a small shop in Dyakha’s neighbourhood. The smell of freshly fried scrambled eggs with cheese and the meat stew with a mix of cinnamon, fenugreek and cloves was my favourite flavour of food. Dyakha taught me how to chop chunks of meat into smaller pieces. Very soon, I loved that act. I loved the swift swings and short stubs with the knife, the tender touches of steel on cold meat, the smallness and symmetry I achieved. Dyakha took photos of me chopping meat in a pretty polaroid camera that had belonged to her mother. She said I looked like a beautifully violent artist with the knife blade. I agreed with that description. I agreed with everything Dyakha saw and said.
Dyakha also had a little electric kettle that would vibrate and stir up steam from its long curved pout, like a beautiful bird in heat. We named the kettle Kuku, for the slow whistle it made with a gentle rattle as it throbbed with steam. We would watch Kuku closely together as she wriggled with the gushing water that wanted to explode out. Sometimes the sight of the steam swirling out of Kuku’s beautiful beak would make us make love again.
Very often Dyakha and I would go to a nearby upscale high-rise with a beautiful glass elevator where we would sneak in to kiss as we felt ourselves flying upwards towards the fifteenth floor, our bodies buoying up with the rising elevator while we hugged and kissed. A recorded female voice would welcome us as we stepped into the lift and pressed the top floor button. We did that whenever we felt like flying. Dyakha had just been in that building once earlier to talk to a film actress, a single mother who wanted an English tutor for her daughter. But they had shifted soon after that. Nobody ever stopped us from getting in the building though we never knew anyone who lived there. The security possibly assumed we’re residents. We must have looked at home there. And we almost always had the lift to ourselves as we flew up while we kissed. The lift had a transparent glass wall that showed the slice of the city branching out of the building. The other sides were closed mirrors. So you could kiss as you flew up seeing the city swing down beneath you while nobody could see you from outside. We had a name for the lift. Phaon. The mythical boatman who ferried you to the island of Lesbos.
Dyakha and I were together for two years, helping each other grow stronger and happier. I loved everything about Dyakha. I loved her soprano voice and slender frame, her elegant artist’s fingers, the curve of her neck and her flawless face that tapered down to a dimpled chin. I loved the way she said Swell on being genuinely pleased with something. I loved the slight saltiness of her thin lips right after we kissed.
Dyakha Dutta is the only real lover I ever had. We made love in ways in which I discovered depths in myself I never knew existed. With waves of kisses and touches that swept across our faces, toes and necks as we felt we’re flying. Loving Dyakha Dutta was the closest I have ever come to feeling free. Fully free. My husband just pleased himself on me.
MY parents didn’t mind me staying over at Dyakha’s apartment frequently during my MA days. My father was a lawyer at the Kolkata High Court who was a Communist in the seventies, and my mother was a lecturer in Political Science in Lady Brabourne College. I guess they were just happy I didn’t have any boyfriend they wouldn’t approve of. Of course, they never knew Dyakha and I had become lovers. Perhaps they just assumed I was waiting to be married off to the perfect man while doing an MA in English. Dyakha never liked my parents. She always thought my father was a patriarchal prick beneath all his left-wing rhetoric and my mother was a petty conformist in the domestic space while pretending to be politically radical in an unreal academic world. I hadn’t seen through my parents the way Dyakha did. She could see through and read people like literary texts, with all their unreliability, deceptive endings and false starts. To my upper-middle-class Bengali parents, Dyakha was perhaps this problematic pretty person from Tezpur they couldn’t patronise, and the very few conversations they had would swing between covert insults and loaded retorts:
– I suppose you find it difficult to live in Kolkata, it’s a massive metropolis and can be intimidating for someone from Tezpur.
– It is indeed difficult Mrs Sengupta, not because Tezpur is smaller but because Kolkata and most of its people are nastier and patronizing. It amazes me how Kolkata Bengalis are still capable of feeling superior to other people, despite the decadence and the hooliganism happening here even as we speak. You need to be pathologically in denial for that!
– You are probably right, and that feeling of superiority stems from a glorious past Bengalis never stop to romanticize. I mean .
– Sorry Mrs Sengupta, that glorious past was enjoyed by a handful of Kolkata-based Bengalis with mostly feudal backgrounds who were happy British imperialism happened. I can’t imagine the average Bengali farmer basking in any of that glory. It was a privilege for the already privileged. The fat people just got fatter, and learnt English language and literature just because the British happened to be here. It was largely a circuit of smooth sycophancy and quick rewards. The same principle that historically governed Kolkata Communism.
– That’s very reductionist. Don’t suppose it was any better in Assam.
– The lot of the common woman was. Always has been. Of course, the average Bengali knows nothing of Assam, except that it’s a pretty place with the Brahmaputra, rhinos, terrorism and tea.
– Can I get you something to nibble before you leave? Some coffee perhaps?
– No thanks, I should make a move. I’m sure by now you’d love to see me leave. Of course, your well-bred Bengali etiquette is stopping you from saying it.
Dyakha may not have always been correct. But she always sounded beautifully right. She always said and did things with beauty and intensity that made it all seem so true. And a part of me was secretly pleased to see my all-knowing parents suffer and humiliated in the verbal battle with my lover.
I could have resisted when my parents told me there were thinking of marrying me off. I could have told them the truth about Dyakha and me. But I didn’t have much agency. I knew I never had any anyway. Growing up in an overprotective Bengali upper-middle-class South Kolkata family makes you feel increasingly redundant regarding choices in life. You are groomed to be fashionably honest and compulsorily dishonest, as the correct and smart choices are too visible and shared by too many people you know and are trained to admire. Of course, my parents were all for openness and equality in seminars and coffee conversations. But I knew they would never accept their own daughter to be known as a lesbian. This wasn’t hypocrisy; just the way openness operates in middle-class social spaces. Openness is a lovely idea, a conversation over coffee and whisky, a verbal device to describe events elsewhere and admire other people with. To be honest, I did not like the term lesbian either. I knew I loved Dyakha. I did not know if I wanted to be known as a lesbian. I did not like the sound of that word and the kind of aftertaste it left in my listener’s mind.
I remember the last conversation I had with Dyakha. I knew she knew what was coming already. I had always been an open text before her with hardly any metaphoric matter between the lines. We were inside Phaon flying up to the fifteenth floor for the final time. All by ourselves again. Standing separately. Not kissing anymore.
– I know you’ll hate me for this.
– I do know you’re perhaps the only person left whom I can truly and deeply hate. But it’s okay Ani. You’re taking the safe shot.
– They’re my parents. I’m their only daughter.
– I was an only daughter too. I ceased to be a daughter, though. My parents are both dead as you know. They died together. Perhaps in the same second. In a car crash. They’ve been dead long enough for me not to mourn them anymore.
– I know you’ll never forgive me.
– I’m glad you know that. But you probably don’t know why. It’s not because you are deciding on calling off our love and moving on to a marriage with a rich prick to produce cute kids and live happily ever after. It’s because you’re telling me your parents are making you do this. The truth is lesbian is a dirty word, too much of a swim against the current for a pretty, polite, social someone like you.
– I really don’t . . .
– Yes, you do Ani. You know you do want to do this. So don’t blame it on your parents. They’re middle-class hypocrites and conventionally corrupt but they couldn’t have made you do it if you didn’t want to. ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad, they may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with all the faults they had. And add some extra, just for you.’ Remember? Larkin?
– I honestly wouldn’t have. . .
– Ani, please do me a favour. Please leave before I strip you any further. Before I hurt myself. And here’s something I had for you. A parting present or wedding gift, whichever phrase you fancy.
Phaon seemed to stay suspended between floors while we spoke. Not flying up freely anymore. There was a slush of slow silence as Dyakha leafed through the insides of her little cloth bag and handed me a curved thing wrapped in plastic with a shiny steel handle peeping out of the cover. There was a small firewheel on the handle.
– It’s a knife Ani, a long lovely curvy thing. Something sharp I’d like you to remember me with. Please don’t use it in the kitchen for cutting vegetables. Please don’t blunt it down that way. It’s a request. I think you’ll find this useful someday. Someday when you feel the need to express yourself as a beautifully violent artist. And if that happens, remember me then. Who knows I may not be that far away?
By the way, I have a name for the knife. Cassandra. The perfect prophet doomed never to be believed as she refused to give herself to Apollo. Keep Cassandra safe with you Ani. Speak to her sometimes.
I didn’t know when I started sobbing; my right hand had gone up to my eyes. I was weeping. We were falling together on our last trip in Phaon. Our last free-fall together. Something very vital was leaving me. Like breath and blood.
– I want you to remember me always . . .
Dyakha came up to me. So close that I could smell her lips again, a smell that would always stay. She brought those thin, beautiful lips of hers on mine.
I didn’t know if we kissed. But I could fully savour the saltiness by then.
It felt like slow rain.
After what seemed like a suspension in stillness, I looked up at the tail-biting snake that showed time on Phaon’s wall. A forkful of night sky was flickering around the glass wall by then. The hands on the snake showed twenty past ten.
– Remember me Ani. And remember that the woman’s song is always a monologue. The men just get to eavesdrop sometimes. Don’t let that be disgraced. Don’t let yourself smell like your husband’s face. And keep Cassandra for us. She’s free, fiery and a strong souvenir of our love. Just make sure she’s always shining with her firewheel. And sharp. Like us. Congratulations on the wedding!
I don’t remember how I reached home afterwards. But I remember touching the cold hard knife on my way, running my fingers along its shiny steel frame. Pressing those against its sharp curved blade. Till I almost bled. I did not bleed. But the fingers of my right hand had scars on their skin like extra count marks by the time I reached home. I felt I had aged and catapulted many years ahead by the time I walked into my room.
Soham Sengupta was really 6 feet 1, handsome and an IIM Bangalore graduate with an IBM job of Rs 14.5 lakhs per annum. There was no foul play anywhere. We had a magnificent marriage and were all set to live a complete conjugal life.
Three days into my marriage I knew my husband wanted a whore who would also be his wife. I felt bloody, bruised and beaten. No words were spoken till he screamed strange names and came all over me in our king-size bed. I tried to cry but could not. I tried to remember the saltiness of Dyakha’s freshly-kissed lips which seemed very far away. A week after our wedding I was forced to attend a party with my husband’s colleagues where someone slapped my back in a group of drunken men whose beer-breaths blended into a thick semen-smell. I did not turn to see who it was. It may have been more than one person. I was too scared to scream. My husband was in another corner right across the room, laughing loudly with a woman whose fat folds of lipstick made her look like a sultry succubus under a red light from somewhere above. And there were red roses and glasses of red wine everywhere, reminding me again of my blood loss. When we got back that night, and my husband wanted to please himself on me again, I screamed, screamed and screamed till I could pass out of exhaustion. Soham Sengupta stopped midway. The last image I had of him showed his eyes changing from carrying wolfish lust to something like fear. I don’t know how I could summon the strength to scream, pushing against my husband’s stronger arms and kicking against his monster thighs. I don’t remember what happened after that.
I do remember dreaming of a horse-driven hearse surrounded by black robes and long poles. At some point in the dream, there was a gunshot. The horse’s legs began to break, and the coffin began to topple. It finally crashed on the stony street and broke open. There were lots of red roses inside, blood-red roses that spewed out giant black ants out of their petals, ants that spread on the street endlessly, till everything was black. I saw myself walk up close to the coffin which was emptied of the roses by then. I looked into the open coffin to see who lay inside. I saw it was me. Sleeping peacefully. With dark dents where my eyes should be.
That seems many years ago. For then I got increasingly used to having loveless sex with my husband and he grew increasingly unexcited about me. So before long, he would disappear during weekends on unexplained business trips and return home tired and tipsy on Sunday nights. We seldom shared moments of true togetherness although I was entirely allowed to use one of his many credit cards. I soon found myself becoming a beautiful piece of furniture for my husband, a pretty trophy to parade with in social gatherings where we would somehow continue to look like a newly married couple. For a while my husband wanted a child but quickly gave up on that idea as that would compromise his condition. I was really relieved as I thought having a child would perpetuate a deeper deception in the form of a human being fucked up as filler in our farce of a marriage. Also, I did not want to become a mother. It seemed to entail something with a liquid life-changing quality I was always told only women could experience. I could never relate to what it seemed to suggest. I was happy not to be a woman that way. My husband and I went for a trip abroad annually, at least two inside India, always with a group of drunken men, their drowsy wives and noisy children. And there were several smart phones to dish out images of our travel and togetherness before the believers. We had all the magical machines to look loved and lovely.
When I discovered the condoms in my husband’s travel bag, I was not angry. I couldn’t feel cheated by someone I never learnt to love. But after we finished our dinner with the typical monosyllabic exchange and my husband headed off to our perfectly pretty bedroom, I tiptoed back to the marble-top corner table where the big bouquet of roses still sat like a grotesquely overgrown organ. It seemed to smile at me still, with the stony stare that had frozen me in fear earlier. But this time I stared back at it and tried to mentally map out the act I felt I ought to do. I looked at the blood-red roses and longed to touch a long curvy thing.
Cassandra stayed wrapped inside a velvet rubber sheath that was further wrapped inside a brown bag of cloth. I cleaned her and her firewheel periodically to keep her shine and touched her blade to check her sharpness. Sometimes I touched her closely to check if she still throbbed. For she did throb. Like a fiery goddess making love to herself. I had only to bring her to life with my tongue and then she’d spring to life and kiss me back. If I used my tongue on Cassandra deeply enough, I felt the fire and saltiness I craved for. In the form of blood. My blood. In all these years she hadn’t lost her shine even by a bit.
I took out Cassandra from her rubber sheath. She emerged out shining like a long lovely snake, immediately hissing back to life. I stared at her for what seemed like endlessness and smiled. I remembered Rossetti’s poem and its goblins’ glen. I knew what to do by then.
When I first tore at the rose bouquet with Cassandra, I felt I was hitting against a thorny forest that tried to hit me back. My right arm burned till I could almost smell my flesh. But this was the fire I craved to feel. This was the blood I wanted to get out of me. This was the loss meant to set me free.
Cassandra fell on the massive mountain of roses like a wild snake unleashed to spit out its precious poison. My hand was moving the blade and I felt a long-lost will rise in me and take me somewhere I wanted to be. Perhaps I was beginning to become the beautifully violent artist Dyakha saw and took photos of. I was running, gyrating, panting for breath. The body of roses was beginning to bleed now, its mangy matter pouring down onto the floor. Cassandra was beginning to draw blood and set fire, her beautiful firewheel seemed to swing across the ends of the ceiling that looked like a stretched sky. Very soon the roses were all on the floor. The petals had become black by then with ant-like bodies spewing out like a dying dirty stream. It felt like but perhaps wasn’t part of my dream.
After the bouquet of roses became a body of blood, I stared at its corpse, smiling at the dismembered limbs, eyes, heart. I realized I could feel full by fragmenting body parts of something else, someone else. I hadn’t discovered the joys of mutilation earlier.
I looked at Cassandra who was a bloody blaze by then. The saltiness she always reminded me of hung in the air like a thick curtain closing me in. Then I walked into the bedroom where my husband slept. It was dark except for my hand’s shining blade. And the light inside my head.
My husband was snoring lightly, as was typical of him. I thought it was beginning to rain outside but I wasn’t sure. There were occasional flashes of lightning though that could be seen from the window. I went up close to my sleeping husband. So close that I could smell his bad beer breath and see his ugly nose hair. He didn’t wake up. For the first time, I picked up his phone without being told to do so. My left hand brought the device close and my eyes started to scan randomly what was inside. I scrolled down the call log until I saw a name that was saved savagely.
A number called four hours before my husband returned. A half-face featured alongside the number on the screen. I wanted to feel that it was fully familiar. Remembering the dimpled chin and thin lips that curled in a way as if the word Swell had just swirled out of them. My feeling was further fuelled as I was putting the phone back by my husband’s head, when I suddenly spotted the date on the right top corner of the screen. It had just crossed midnight. Just become 13 April. The date in which Dyakha and I first made, always made love.
Cassandra was still throbbing in my right hand having drawn blood from the red roses. Before I brought her down in one clean swing onto my husband’s throat, I remembered what Dyakha had told me many years ago. “Who knows I may not be that far away.”
As I heard the sound of blood gushing out of an open throat, I moved with Cassandra closer to where my husband’s heart lay. Soon the smell of the stew Dyakha and I cooked together filled the room like a thickening light. I was setting everything on fire with Cassandra’s firewheel blazing like a growing star. I stood at the heart of the heat. Making love to myself. Chopping meat. Cutting the chunks down to small symmetrical pieces. And it was being slow-cooked in Cassandra’s firewheel into my favourite flavoured stew. With cinnamon, cloves and fenugreek. The image of Kuku swam back in my mind as well. A beautiful bird in heat.
When the smell of stew had grown fully with all its fragrant flavours and mixed with the steam emerging out of Kuku’s beak, I started to dance. A slow dance with a bloody knife that was now a part of me. This was like when Dyakha and I first made love. This was like when I felt fully free.
Very soon my husband stopped to scream. Some moonlight swirled in and mixed with the stewsmell, fire and steam. It felt like but perhaps wasn’t part of any of my dreams.
I went back to the room where the black ants lay dead. I picked those with the petals and poured it all on my husband. Till it all looked like a morbid marriage bed. Soon everything stopped being so red.
I looked out and saw a forkful of night sky flickering on the window frame that became the glass wall of Phaon showing me the familiar slice of the city. Soon I heard the familiar recorded female voice welcoming me to walk in.
The snake-tailed clock hands showed it was twenty past ten. Cassandra and her firewheel had cooled down by then. I flew up in Phaon, all by myself, fully free from guilt, grudge and shame. As the door opened on the fifteenth floor, I stepped out and saw myself in the cobbled bit of College Street. Waiting for Dyakha as it rained.
Avishek Purai is an Indian national from Kolkata currently working as Assistant Professor in English Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati. He has researched on literature and memory and is an Associate Fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy, having done his PhD in English from Durham University.