His mother mails: if Shailaja agrees, consider calling your cousin to Toronto. After all Neerja is alone in New York while her mother is seriously ill here. You know she can’t return until she gets her Green Card…The mail smokes out the girl from his youth in Chennai, a girl with his aunt’s wide smile, a flame flitting in and out of his memory. Sesh calls the number his mother sent. Puts on his best big brother style, slips in a phrase of Tamil and tells her voice mail to call him back.
When he is in a meeting, Neerja texts back. Txs 4 calng. u visitng NYC?
Neerja doesn’t like to have dinner alone or have only Bronwen for company. She bathes, reached for the perfume, then stops. There’s no one to climb up and down the perfume trail that leads to her innermost, moist scent. She misses Bill; she even misses being bored by him. Neerja decides to accept Sesh’s invitation. Her mother would like that.
Below the wheeling plane the city spread as a brownish disk, broad roads stretch like spokes to the curved horizon.
Neerja waved at the man she thought was her cousin, that man who looked like her uncle but is taller, younger, muscular. She kissed the cheek of his wife and they drove through low urban sprawl while the couple talked about commuting and their new house and Neerja began to feel chill; the views were monotonous, clean and endless. The car nosed into acres of neat houses with two car garages. They pulled up at a driveway.
Welcome Shailaja said. Sunlit inside, the walls bare except for few paintings of gods. The sofa set was chocolate brown.
I knew you’d be missing the taste of home Sesh’s wife said as she served sambar-rice, curry, pappadums, yogurt.
O you’re so thoughtful Neerja gasped as she dug in. Mummm. Delicious.
Nothing’s too much trouble to cheer up a relative, is it Sesh said Shailaja.
Sesh nodded, his mouth full of rice.
Neerja worked her way through a second helping. Mummm she said. It was spicy.
All ready Sesh asked his eyes grazing Neerja’s legs, darting to her eyes and sliding down again.
You’ll feel cold for sure Shailaja said.
Used to it. Neerja shrugged. She knew her skirt was too short, the black boots not high enough.
Well then, in you go Sesh said, holding the car door open. She got in like a pet.
Carnatic music flowed through the car in familiar ragas as the countryside opened in greens, yellows and vermilion. Picture-book farmhouses lined the road. The air was clear and sharp; each leaf stood in its halo of light. There was not a person in sight.
Beautiful Neerja said from the back seat.
She’s got to taste the wine Sesh said.
In the afternoon?
When else? Neerja is visiting us for the first time.
I see your brother is determined to spoil you Shailaja said.
Both Neerja and Sesh laughed. Sesh laughed a lot.
Sesh pulled up at a determinedly rustic structure. Lemon colored flowers and blossom bursts of magenta grew in blazing symmetry in the garden. Halloween pumpkins ringed the flowerbeds.
While Neerja and Shailaja sat in the sun Sesh strode in. He emerged with a woman in tow carrying three glasses and a bottle of wine.
Ice wine for you. Cheers said Sesh.
Wonderful! Neerja said.
Our specialty Shailaja nodded. The grapes are picked on the coldest night of December when they are sweetest, then made into wine.
Glad I’m only doing the savoring!
That’s Neerja for you Sesh said. Spoilt since she was a child.
Let her be Sesh!
I’m letting her be Sesh said. Relax.
The three of them drank in the wine, the cold, the colors and the light. Gunshot, meant to scare off birds from the vineyards, periodically punctuated the silence.
Wild heavy water rolled cold over the fall, in a spectacular and exhilarating display, to break into high soft spume.
We’ll be drenched Neerja laughed. She shivered as she ran towards the railing. The Falls are mesmerizing!
You were mesmerizing as a child. You still are Sesh says.
Neerja looked up at him then down at the falling water.
Sesh pulled back. I’ll take pictures he said. Send them home.
Neerja turned her face to the camera and smiled.
After another sumptuous meal Neerja played with Venketesh, her churlish nephew before she was escorted to a bedroom room.
She awoke not knowing where she was. The room was still, bright and antiseptically clean. A young tree with yellow leaves shook unceasingly outside the windowpane. Neerja made her way downstairs.
Good afternoon! Want to eat? Shailaja called.
Ummm. Neerja dug in. Just like home.
Made to your brother’s taste! She laughed. Tell me, what do you remember of him?
I was a kid when he left. Neerja smiled. My earliest memory is the best. Sesh choose me on his team when we cousins played War-War. We were the Air Force, on a huge swing, swinging. Ground troops were gunning us down. I was six maybe. Being youngest, I was the first marked to die, which meant I had to shut my eyes and stick my tongue out but not fall off the swing. Sesh knew I was scared so he moved behind me and held me tight. I remember swinging and swinging with my eyes shut tight.
Sesh called to apologize. He’d be back by evening he said. The women went shopping.
Next morning Shailaja pressed tomato sandwiches into Neerja’s hand, informed her she was always welcome and left for work. As Sesh drove her to the airport he spoke about her mother’s health about their ancestral family house and that his house was hers. Neerja looked out at the dull urban sprawl.
They stood on the tarmac with her overnighter between them. Know the first image I have of you?
You were five years old, in a long silk skirt and blouse; you twirled in front of the mirror and kissed your image full on the lips. Then you looked at me to see if I was watching. And you smiled.
Really? Neerja laughed.
I’ll be visiting New York next month he said. Shall I see you?
Neerja looked at his body. She liked the shape and energy. Sure she said. Call.
Sesh calls Neerja. Neerja almost always returns his calls. He’s concerned about her, he says. She laughs. She asks about his son; about Shailaja. Sesh answers dutifully, wishing he didn’t have a wife. She wants to party she says. He feels caged by her words, the bars too hot to touch. But I’m not drinking. Nor sleeping around though that’s a fun timepass. Remember the timepass things we’d do in India, big brother, she asks. Singing Bollywood songs together was a timepass. Eating peanuts was a timepass. I wouldn’t mind being eaten as timepass, yum-yum. She laughs. Be serious, Neerja! Actually all I want is to be with my Amma who may be dying she says. What’s this stupid Green Card worth anyway? When are you coming to see me? What kind of a big brother are you, she taunts, close to weeping, if you can’t take care of your Lil’ Sis? Nothing’s worth anything anymore, she says and disconnects.
Sesh texts her, his words couched in caution and eagerness, leopards leaping into a swamp. She replies Y or N to his messages. Sometimes both. He begins to think of Neerja often during the day. He is no longer playing big brother but doesn’t realize this. Neerja texts him, jumbling things. Kno u cld theoretically fall right through Saturn ‘cause it’s made of gas? Imagine that! Can u ice skate? I WANT TO C MY MOTHER MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE. A bucket full of orange butterflies empties into Sesh. He’ll fly down to see her he says. I’ll believe u when I c u, she texts back. U cld b just like the others. I am not like ‘them’, he texts back, whoever ‘they’ may be.
Neerja calls Ok, Sesh, tell me when you’re coming so I’ll make time. Sesh says does it occur to you Neerja, that I too am busy? Sure, she says and disconnects. Sure, she texts, u r busy. But u startd givng me updates on what’s happenng @ home. I’m hooked. U’ve gotta take responsibility. Sure, I take responsibility, Sesh texts, worried about what he’s saying. Neerja calls. Amma tries to speak like she’s ok though her voice sounds so tired I cry hearing her. Sesh realizes Neerja is weeping. I have a big heavy hole that’s tearing me. No one’s telling me the truth. Neerja disconnects. Sesh redials. Calm down, Neerja your mother is ok. Through her broken open weeping she says I depend on you to tell me the truth. And somewhere in your mind you are thinking other things about me. She pauses. I don’t care what you are thinking. Understand?
Neerja, I understand you are extremely upset, and rightly so.
Yes, I’m upset. And rightly so. Don’t call till you arrive.
If that’s what you wish, Neerja, if that’s what you want…
Neerja slumps her head in her hands, tears flowing. The phone rings. It’s the new guy, Todd. Outside her window a very old man is walking a Cocker Spaniel pup. It sniffs the ground, tugging at the leash, the man falters behind. She rubs her eyes with the balls of her palms, smearing her tears. Hi Todd.
Sesh strides out of office. He’s late fetching Venkatesh from tennis class. Shailaja will pick this over dinner delicately and firmly as if she were pulling out a vein of chilly seeds from its pod and he will be dismissive. He revs the car. Vrooom, vroom. Late sunlight slants on buildings, trees and cars awaiting signals. It’s a gloaming light, as if from another time.
Come in Bronwen said. Neerja is expected. I’m to look after you beyond the call of duty. Bronwen was blond, his height and almost his weight. Tea, coffee, wine? she asked as she led the way to the living room. The sofa was colored with Indian scatter cushions, a low table stood on an Indian rug; two Modigliani prints hung on either side of the TV.
No smoking! Bronwen said.
I don’t smoke.
Bronwen laughed. Sorry! Neerja had a friend who did. He’d have to stick his head out, though.
Sesh felt hot. Would you mind if I open a window he asked.
Sure. She strode to the window and heaved it open before he could.
Thank you. Sesh stood by the window. You keep a very clean place…
I keep a very clean place. Bronwen stood near the door. I’m in the next room, ok?
Ok. Sesh smiled.
Sesh studied the walls. He studied each curve of Modigliani’s nudes. He looked into the street at the people walking past. He switched on the TV; he switched channels. He stopped being part of the still life. He peeked into Bronwen’s room; she was at her laptop. He inspected the bathroom shelves; no indication of male presence. Except that three toothbrushes sat in a glass; Neerja might use two, or Bronwen. Or maybe Bronwen had a lover. He opened the small cabinet. On the first shelf: two razors, lipsticks, mascara, perfumes and a lighter. That belonged to the man who smoked. Black water caved into Sesh.
He knocked on Bronwen’s door and asked for a glass of wine. Sure she said promptly getting up. Sipping wine Sesh switched channels. He tried calling Neerja. He sent her a message and studied the glossed parquet floor. He tapped on Bronwen’s door. Bye he said.
Bronwen lifted her head from the screen. Ok she smiled brightly.
The chill wind was refreshing. Sesh was glad nothing had come out of this meeting with Neerja. That’s what he said to himself as his phone rang. Shailaja, I’m held up he said automatically. Sorry I didn’t call.
No I’m very sorry I couldn’t call you. It’s Neerja calling. My guide’s giving me a bad time. Sesh could we still meet?
Please, please! Let’s play tourists! Meet on Top of the Rock?
Say yes Neerja said. I’ve had a rotten day.
New York at my feet though I’m paying for it. The Empire State Building empurpling before me. Worth it, what? Neerja looked up at him and smiled. The wind blew through gaps in the glass panels.
Sesh looked at her. She was smiling, shivering and walking. The illuminated city stretched below on every side, a flaming cobweb afloat on a dark river, lines of light that could distend any moment, any moment break.
Neerja grasped his arm. Amma called me today pretending she was ok. She paused. Pretense is ridiculous. And sad. Neerja stepped back. Your pretense too.
Believe it or not I’m concerned about you.
It’s cold, let’s go in. Neerja waved to studded city floating at their feet. Or do you want to kiss me right away?
Yes. His arms wrapped around Neerja as if accustomed, his hand fed into her hair, his head craned down of its own accord to meet her lips. She was slimmer than he thought she’d be, and shorter. She rose on her toes to meet his lips.
Better, she breathed, and opened her mouth.
His hands were scrambling to hold her closer, get inside her clothes, when she pulled away.
It’s cold, she said.
He stroked the hair off her forehead, he lowered his head.
Neerja pulled away. Inside…
Reluctant and submissive, Sesh allowed himself to be led inside like a pet.
He held her in the elevator and down the street, they kissed in the cab, he kissed her while she slapped away his arms and fumbled with the latchkey. He scooped her up and kicked the door shut. Neerja laughed loudly.
This is my house. I’ll be as noisy as I like.
Sesh felt his arms sagging.
My room! Neerja said smiling like sunlight sliding down glass frontage.
Lemme get the lighting right. Neerja switched on the bedside lamp and one over a painting. Yes? First your coat, sir, she said, mock bowing. On tiptoe she smoothly slid it off and threw it down. With her back towards him she spread her arms out, limp, woolen wings that needed to be freed. He removed her coat and folded it over the back of a chair, his training with Shailaja sliding in.
Neerja laughed. Such deliberation! You need a glass of wine. Need candles too?
Sesh sank on her bed. This wasn’t how he’d plotted their meeting, over and over again in his mind. She was to be a zaimph on fire and he the air that enveloped, fed the flame. He charred, but even more, each banal movement of her thought and body moved him. He fell back on caution and recklessness, he’d take what comes; he had to act young. He had desired her too long, since she walked out of the airport in Toronto and even before in the photograph his mother sent years ago with Neerja partially hidden by the older women she was hugging and even before; no time existed before his desire. Sesh peeled off his socks and shoes and waited. She was taking time.
Here, Neerja said. She clanked the glasses like castanets, held them out like armor.
Sesh buckled and poured the wine.
Glug it down. It barely passes.
True Sesh said as Neerja kicked off her shoes.
He went to her. Wait. You’re finding the lighting too bright, aren’t you? Neerja slipped away to turn off the bedside lamp. Better?
Like a whisper she came into his arms and held her arms up. Strip me.
He pulled off her sweater. She was naked beneath.
That’s why I took long, she said. I undressed and re-dressed.
He sat on the bed. You are beautiful he said.
Yes. She thrust herself on him, pushing him down. She was silk, movement, water, her fingers undoing his shirt buttons, his zip, a stream running down, their lips on each other wherever, finding water.
It’s ok if this is a quickie Neerja said lifting her head.
Shut up Sesh rasped, pushing her hair off her forehead, holding it back like time.
Ok. She cupped his face in her palm. Ok.
A alarm rang.
Neerja prodded Sesh. I set it so you won’t miss your flight.
You planned it all Sesh said.
Sure. Like you. Neerja snuggled to hug a pillow. Her leg kicked Sesh’s. Neerja’s sleepiness and nakedness made him taut.
I’ll make my flight Sesh said one arm reaching to draw Neerja close, his other hand wandering to her thigh. He stroked her; he kissed her shoulder. Neerja…
One more time till next time Sesh breathed into her ear. Till next time. He stroked into her softness.
You’ll miss coffee.
Fuck the coffee Sesh said.
Neerja laughed, shifting so her body cradled into the semicircle of his. Ok. She placed his hand over her breasts and stroked it.
I’ll see you next month, he said, shrugging on his coat.
Ok. Bye. Neerja snuggled deeper under the quilt.
As he boarded, Sesh knew he already was flying, reeling with images of Neerja’s nakedness moving around him, her hands reaching for his face, for his sex like showers of comets raining home.
The Air Canada safety announcement rumbled out in both French and English. Under brilliant sunshine, clouds the consistency of churned buttermilk stretched endlessly, clouds frothy yet strangely dense, floating as if on a pile of liquid made from another matter fermented by memory. Sesh stretched in his cramped seat and slept.
Over the week Sesh finds Shailaja irritates him in innumerable and small ways like a constant stream of pebbles rolling down a mountainside, making sharp sounds as they fall. Even the sight of her worn slip-ons irritate him. Get a new pair he tells her.
What’s with you? she asks. I like them. You’re to take Venktesh to karate classes next week. I have papers to correct. Shailaja steps into the bath. She takes far too long.
That night Sesh imagines he is with Neerja when he’s making love to Shailaja, there’s a desperation in his caresses. Shailaja moans in ways she had forgotten; she doesn’t tell him what next to do, nor he her; their old routes to excitement are forgotten. What’s with you lover Shailaja murmurs as she strokes his face when their bodies are slack and calm, what’s with you tonight? Missing youth, I guess Sesh whispers, alarmed by her acuity and moved by her tenderness; his guilt a guillotine falling.
After washing, he looks at his face in the mirror. It must stop, he tells himself. He holds the washbasin rim to steady himself till he feels sure he can walk back an innocent. By the light of the bedside lamp Shailaja is naked and smiling, patting the bed in a welcoming way; an oyster, open and gleaming. As he clambers in, Shailaja says Mummy wants a cuddle and pulls his arm over her waist. She snuggles her body against his, sighs and sleeps. As he listens to Shailaja’s soft snores Sesh pulls away. Nauseous and dizzy, he lies staring at the ceiling. He remembers they were in love but forgets how he loved her or what enchanted him; he is bereft without Neerja. Sesh has coped with his occasional Infidelity but his intensity for Neerja makes him a stranger to himself, makes him full of resolve. He will reap the consequences of his hopeless love Sesh decides. He also decides he will peruse unpleasantness with Shailaja to put distance between them; he will be unworthy of his wife for as long as Neerja will have him. Otherwise Shailaja might catch on. Around dawn, Sesh falls asleep.
That evening Neerja decides to spend the next night with Todd but leave early to complete a paper. Sitting in bed, Neerja says her prayers before she climbs into sleep. In the next room Bronwen tries not to be resentful as she observes Neerja juggle two men in her life so soon after a break up. She decides to call Steve. She finds herself smiling when he smiles, she likes his voice, she’d like to see his inky limbs spread over her. To prepare herself she’ll washes her honey colored hair; it will drip around her as a heavy nectar sac. She looks like a Rubens nude, skin barely holding in desire, though the lighting is flat. Bronwen turns it off.
Call asap Neerja texts.
He calls immediately, from the washroom in his office.
Amma’s had a remission. They never told me how bad it was but now there’s good news they are spilling the beans. See me soon Sesh, I want you to see me happy. When can you come?
Weekend after next? I’m missing you all over. Sesh feels idiotic and happy so slips into his big brother mould. I wanted to be absolutely sure about the test results before I told you Neerja he says.
Yeah I understand. Weekend after next. I’ll keep myself free. I’m missing you all over I’m kissing you all over. Neerja disconnects.
Sesh swung leave from work; to Shailaja he apologized profusely for not attending Venkatesh’s karate class show because a raise could hinge on the meeting in New York, he apologized to his son and bought him roller skates. He surprises himself with his ability to project himself as stressed and caring husband and father. Love makes lying almost painless, more than any summons of desire ever could Sesh muses because my love is doomed and true. He feels youthful thinking this way, and unforgivably stupid.
Yet trees shake leaves of fire and sunlight picks out diamonds in the sidewalk as Sesh strides to work; he stamps down guilt, crushes it into rumpled sheets, this guilt that grows bat wings each night and flaps its worn leather into his mouth; he beats it off. As a precaution he takes every opportunity to quarrel with Shailaja so that she is too peeved to suggest sex. Sesh succeeds.
Neerja calls to say she’s preparing her defense and Bronwen has a new guy, Steve, in the apartment. Neerja senses Sesh’s disapproval and says Steve’s cool, they are busy anyway, come!
Come all over me she texts the next day. She sends a double sms of xxs.
Sesh smses two messages of xxs. He feels ridiculous and brave. Rainbow arcs burst from earth and rise arcing upwards.
Night has dropped by the time Sesh arrives.
Ssuush Neerja says as he lifts her, kisses her, carries her, his desire speechless.
Candles wave small arms in her room all over the night.
Romantic Sesh says remembering to notice but not noticing much else.
It’s partly romantic and partly something else Neerja says squirming down.
I’ve got you ice wine.
O goood! She beats his hands off, pours the wine and toasts Tonight.
Sesh quaffs it down. He needs her body twisting in his arms, lifting and rising and resisting and opening, guiding him in.
Take me any way you want, ask anything of me she says.
I’m so so happy…
Neerja, I want you like first love.
Neerja’s face is wet. I’m happy she murmurs.
I’m happy Sesh says, nesting her against his body’s long curve.
Sometime in the night she awakens him. The candles have gutted.
Take me not like first love she says.
At dawn her alarm rings and rings.
Turn it off. Sesh pulls the comforter over his head.
No. Wake up. Look at me.
You’re always on my mind, Neerja…
Neerja switches the lights on. She whips off the sheets, she pulls tenderness over her; Sesh, Sesh she peals open his eyelids. See this, she says pointing to a bite-mark on her breast. This isn’t you. It’s Todd. See this. She shows him bite marks on her thigh. This isn’t you. It’s Todd. Kneeling, she strokes his hair, Sesh…
He jacks upright.
You have Shailaja. Think I don’t imagine the two of you together? It’s driving me mad and no way do I want it. So listen Sesh she cups his face in her hands, what I’m going to do she says between kissing his lips, his forehead, his temples, his eyes, his neck as he turns into a statue of himself, heavy and still, is I’m going to lock myself in the kitchen till you leave. Neerja kisses his hands and places them on her eyes. She wraps the comforter around her and leaves.
Sesh sits in bed, bewildered by his nakedness, the light, Neerja’s words. Saturn isn’t the only planet one can fall right through he now knows. You’re selfish. You always were spoilt! he shouts as he falls, as he keeps falling. What about me? he calls falling, faint.
From somewhere high above Neerja sticks her head in, tousled hair falling over her face. Sesh don’t get in touch any which way. Please don’t. She plants a loud kiss on her palm and blows it in his direction.
Dear Amma Sesh mails we are indeed very happy to know that Kamala Aunty’s cancer is in remission. Thanks to your suggestion I got in touch with Neerja. This proved to be a happy reunion for all of us. I did my best to be a big brother to her and I think she was glad; she is a wonderful girl. Venkatesh stood first in class this term too. Shailaja sends her warmest regards to you and Appa. Both of you are always in our thoughts. More later. Sesh.
As he presses the Send button Sesh knows he is waiting for his aunt to die so he has a reason to call Neerja again. That’s when he realizes he is crying.
- The Gathering of Time
- Priya Sarukkai Chabria at Pratilipi
- Priya Sarukkai Chabria at Open Space
- We Must Talk by Priya Sarukkai Chabria
- War Poems from Babylon and Persia, 2005
- To The Land of My Lord by TM Krishna (Carnatic musician and winner of the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay award) in The Indian Express
- In sacred rapture by Chintan Girish Modi, Interview in The Hindu
- Excerpt in Scroll.in
- Love and Language by Arshia Sattar, Open Magazine
- Review by Sumana Roy in Scroll.in
- Preface to new book translation of Andal by Mani Rao, Preface to book
- Beauty in the Beast by Uddalak Mukherjee, Telegraph India
- Bombay/Mumbai: Immersions by Mustansir Dalvi, TimeOut Mumbai
- Into Mumbai's heart by Anupama Raju, The Hindu
- Mumbai’s quaint immersions in light and darkness by Sumana Roy, The Sunday Guardian
- Aandaal/Andal/Antal: The Autobiography Of A Goddess