By Sucharita Dutta-Asane
“Raater moton kaalo.” Black as the night. Your father welcomed you into the world with these words, tagging you for life with a cliché that could be churned into stories of conflicting viewpoints. Like the time boys chased you or followed you from school and then college; your story was always different from that of your family. Going by their reaction, you were the errant one, not the boys. How could they be? Who woos a dark girl? Yet, you were lucky father thought of ‘night’, not ‘coal’, another popular simile for the dark skinned. As you grew up, to you, the night was never dark; it was a luminous, throbbing expanse, sparkling with starlight, an opaque, endless beauty. Beautiful, unclaimed, unconquered.
Look! There you stand, bedecked, before prospective grooms and their families. It’s always late evening, never in the daytime. In the muted light of fading evening, the skin seems less dark. Where is Suvarna, the fair sibling? You are Kaali. “The black one or the Goddess?” you’d asked. Your Kaaki christened you “Shyama” as soon she saw you in the hospital room, a name more imbued with devotion, less resonant of the family’s qualms. Mother’s eyes had welled up with tears at the sight of the dark bundle next to her, genes carried from forgotten generations. “Why do you cry, didi?” Kaaki had asked her. “I’ll call her Shyama, she’ll remind you of the Shyama Sangeet you so love.”
“Don’t walk out at night, hariye jaabi, you’ll get lost.” Your cousins sniggered. You were always the ghost, wrapped in a white shawl, your face invisible in the darkness. In Catch, Suvarna was the first to be caught out, her brightness a dead giveaway, they said. Didn’t all of you play games that were fixed, as were attitudes, jokes, complexes? What happened when Suvarna decided to elope, her chosen groom a religious outcast for the family? She turned to you for help, not the other girls in the family, not her friends. You were no threat. You strolled past the house with her lover, the signal for the moment of elopement, till the appointed place in the market where his friend waited for them in his car. They would drive across the state border and marry in a temple on a hilltop, no other temple would do for that one was known to bless couples like them, make their marriages fructify. The amount of work such a god would have! Isn’t that what you thought of as the lovers embraced?
At the car’s open door, Suvarna hugged you. “Try and get yourself a husband,” she said. Her lover looked over the car’s roof and smiled, “Thanks. All the best.” His friend, already at the steering wheel, gave you a cursory look. Your role was fixed where the three were concerned – you would spend a lifetime escorting eloping couples, living your fantasies through them. As soon as the car left, you looked around and found a bench in front of a café, your belly aching with suppressed laughter. There were few people at that afternoon hour. Laughter erupted as you sat on the wooden bench, tears coursing down your cheeks, all attempts at holding back given up, succumbing to the moment, unmindful of passing glances and comments. You turned and looked into your twice darkened face in the café’s tinted glass, your eyes large, thick lashed, kohl lined. Mihir called you “Krishnakali”.
“If we have to elope we’ll elope at night.”
Mihir and you were sitting at the base of a grassy slope outside his house. Anybody looking down from the top of the slope would see only the tops of two heads. Your hair, though, would give you away. You’d left it loose.
“If we run away at night your family won’t be able to catch us in a hurry. They won’t be able to see you at all.” His eyes danced.
You leaned into him. “They are so sure I can’t have a lover that they won’t think of giving chase.”
“So when do we elope? No fun in the daytime. No thrill.”
“Let’s run away from the Durga Puja pandal, in front of everyone.”
How the two of you giggled at that. The other girls of the family were chaperoned since they had grown up. Nobody gave you a second thought. Your blackness, your freedom.
“Actually, why do we need to elope at all? If I propose to your family, they’ll consider me heaven sent, won’t they? The ready groom. Why worry?”
“This boy will choose you,” your mother had said, parting the curtain just a little to give you a peep at the ‘boy’ sitting by the window, his right hand holding the teacup, the left in his coat pocket. “What’s wrong with his hand?” You asked her. “Oh that? It’s nothing. An accident in his childhood. He doesn’t have fingers on that hand.”
“I don’t want to marry him, I told Ma.”
Jhumpa was aghast. “But why?”
Mihir had just walked into the room. You were still getting acquainted.
“What excuse did you cook up?” Jhumpa asked.
“He cleans himself with his right hand, I can’t marry him.”
“You told your mother that?” Mihir had pulled up a chair and sat in front of you, his eyes bulging.
“They’ve stopped groom hunting at least. Stopped talking to me too. ‘You don’t look into the mirror often enough,’ Kaaki said.”
“Hats off, guru.” Mihir had said. He had looked at you longer than he had ever done. His eyes sparkled with mirth; they mellowed with something else. Jhumpa slapped you on the back, dislodging the moment from your eyes. “Good for you. I’ll get tea, don’t go away. Dada, stop staring at her.”
Mihir was returning from an exhausting football match when he saw his sister’s friend at the window. She was looking at him. He’d seen her often with his sister, a white and black pair, the black exquisite. She smiled. He was confused. Should he smile back? Why not? After all she was his sister’s best friend. He smiled in response. She turned away and went inside only to reappear immediately at another window, her face animated, still smiling. That’s when it struck him. To the observer he must have looked like a love-struck teenager. She was talking over the phone, the cell phone invisible in her hand curtained by her thick, black hair. He had looked away quickly, biting his tongue, scolding himself.
As he walked home dribbling the football, the flash of white teeth against ebony skin and the cascade of hair lingered with him.
It was late afternoon that day when your Kaaki entered your room. It was siesta time after a heavy meal of mutton biryani, mutton cutlets and rabri; your cousin’s engagement lunch.
You pressed down the earphones a little more and shut your eyes.
She stood between the window and you, a pile of sarees in her hands. The sarees would topple in a heap any moment; you sat up in a hurry and took them from her, took off the earphones and switched off the music.
“Got these sarees for you to choose from for the wedding.”
You looked at the colours for a long time. Pale pink. Teal. Orange. Cream. Cream. Cream. Lemon Yellow.
“I’ve already chosen.”
“The turquoise one Ma bought yesterday.”
“Shyama.” There was a kind of insistence in the way she uttered the name; ‘more beautiful than Kaali’, she’d said. The connotation, rather than the colour, perhaps. “These sarees will suit your complexion more.” She started sorting out the sarees, displaying their resplendent borders, the deftly woven aanchal, the play of soft colours in the light.
You got up and kept away the books that had piled up on the bedside table.
“After we get married, don’t wear anything.”
Standing in the circle of his arms, you looked up at Mihir. You had to see the look in his eyes, hear the whispered words again. He leaned back against the wall, drawing you closer into his arms, your nose flattened against his chest. It was cold outside. His shawl wrapped itself in folds around the two of you, the hair on his chest tickled your nose. You wanted to sneeze but started giggling instead.
“What’s so funny?” He pushed you back, his hands rough on your arms.
You slumped back against his chest. “Nothing.”
“I saw the picture of a very dark model once. Nude. Black beauty.”
His arms around you tightened. Whom did he hold in his arms at that moment? You definitely did not have a model’s chiselled figure. You were fuller, your curves more rounded, the hips that of figures carved on temple walls, not of the ramp. His eyes were shut, head tilted back against the wall, his chin with its overnight stubble sharp, well defined; your chin was a little more rounded, cheeks full, forehead broad, the stud on your nose glittered sharply against its upward tilt.
You moved out of his embrace.
He opened his eyes.
When he opened his eyes, Mihir took time to recognise the figure in front of him. He had been dreaming of her, but this woman who stood before him was different. This woman with breasts like darkened mangoes, hips that flared out, beckoning, shoulders thrown back. This woman was his, yet not the one who had been swaying in his arms moments ago, behind his eyes. Light from outside shone on her body through the white lace curtain that fluttered at the window. They seemed suspended in a strange quietness. She stood before him, her hair luminous around her head, shoulders, hips. He swallowed back a lump that rose to his throat. She had walked out of his arms the other day, in the afternoon heat that had risen through his body, throbbed along his veins. She’d left him feeling bereft. What was he to do now? He stared at her and thought of how Kaali had stomped through the killing fields turning the night into an inferno. He thought of the prone Shiva at her feet. Why did these images rise before his eyes? She stood before him, wrapped in the night, beguiling, beckoning, teasing, challenging.
He got out of bed and took a tentative step towards her. How had she come here? When? The bird in the wall clock chirped out the hour. Past midnight. And then the day and its events crept into his consciousness. Not everybody was sleeping at that hour. In her house, at that moment, the newlyweds were cocooned for the night, their first night as man and wife. In that room steeped in the fragrance of rajnigandha and rose, the night stood still, as it did for them in this room, held in abeyance, waiting.
She stepped closer to the window, standing in a patchwork of streetlight and moonlight, unadorned, unclothed, uninhibited, her body sheathed in darkness and light. He stood in his nightclothes; his eyes travelled over the curves and hollows of her body. The gentle swell of her abdomen, not the washboard abs he had seen in pictures and movies. The groove of an arm. The dip of her navel. The hollow at the base of her throat where the moonlight did not sink but sprang back to glide down over the swell of her breasts. He couldn’t make out their ends in the semidarkness of the room, the complete darkness of her body. He couldn’t see where the legs joined and parted. Neither streetlight nor moonlight there. Only her upper torso seemed suspended in the languid light, a surreal essence that could have floated into the room when he slept.
Something held him back from that body. A fear of trespassing. The fear of challenge.
It was obvious he found himself incapable of response. You had to step in. You reached out with the thousand arms of the night, embraced him, drew him into your warmth, one leg around him. He stood, passive, but his manhood throbbed and strained against your legs. When you stood on tiptoe to kiss him, he shuddered, stepped back for a miniscule second and stepped in again. His kiss was hesitant, his arms unsure of their way over your body, but they sought you all the same.
Two weeks after that night, two weeks of not meeting, Mihir invited you to dinner.
Look how you draped your saree, how it clung to you, like a kindred soul; how you strode into the restaurant and looked for him and not finding him there you pulled out a chair near the window and began your wait.
Mihir reached ten minutes late. You watched him lock his car and cross the road. The streetlights were bright but the window pane darkened his image. In front of you an aquarium perched across a pair of columns, the inverted whorls along their top packed close together, garish in their faux Grecian look; in your stomach, a similar tightness made it difficult for you to breathe. You were waiting.
“Is that how you felt when you held me in your arms? Fettered?”
Mihir looked away from the bluntness of your question, at the hubbub on the road outside. Durga Puja was only a week away; the city’s streets and roads, lanes and alleys throbbed with the festive spirit. “Overwhelmed,” he muttered.
“Mihir.” Your voice was sanitised. “Look at me.”
He did. “I can’t. Live with you.”
What were you thinking? That Mihir was a foregone conclusion? That you’d always known about the end? When he held you that night, hesitant at first, then with rising excitement, he’d conquered stigma. But you were no supplicant. He would get to know. You always knew.
“You confuse me.” He said. And then, “Whom will you marry?”
You could have feigned despair at the question; instead, you raised an eyebrow. “I like the subject-hood.”
He picked up the glass of water. “I did love you, you know?”
“But not honestly enough.”
He pushed the plate away. “Don’t do this to yourself.”
“No, Mihir. I won’t do this to myself.”
As I look back, I know I was ready for the moment when Mihir said ‘I can’t’; for that moment when I stepped out of the restaurant and the night with its stars and streetlights wrapped itself around me. I walked out, to freedom, to myself. The night was brilliant, resonant. As I turned the corner of an old building, a man with a beedi between his lips, his lungi hitched up, stepped back from the verandah and pulled the curtain across an incomplete Durga idol. I stopped. “Have to paint Ma’s eyes now,” he said. I nodded and carried on.
Sucharita Dutta-Asane is an award winning writer and independent fiction editor based in Pune. In 2013, she received the inaugural Dastaan award for her short story Rear View. In 2008, she received Oxford Bookstores debuting writers’ prize (second) for her short story collection, The Jungle Stories. Her short stories have appeared in various national and international anthologies like the Africa-Asia anthology, Behind the Shadows, 2012; Zubaan Publishers’ Breaking the Bow, an anthology of speculative fiction based on The Ramayana (2012); Ripples, Short Stories by Indian Women Writers (2010) and Unisun Publications’ Vanilla Desires (2010). Her articles, book reviews, short stories, and a novella, Petals in the Sun, have been extensively published across electronic publications such as Asian Cha, Open Road Review, The Bangalore Review, The Four Quarters Magazine (TFQM), etc.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.