There she was, looking like fresh lilies. Mr. D, sitting straight in his armchair, fidgeting with the RSVP card and intermittently raising his wrist to see the time, cast a sidelong glance at her. The room was in a state of indescribable mess. A complete mess! The spell was cut short. Mr. D was on his feet again. He looked at her as one looks at people of whom one has seen too much. Calmly he made his way past her to go to his daughters and take stock of the situation in their garrison. He had begun to replace time for them. His arrivals and departures beat in rhythm in place of clocks and alarms.
There she was, looking like fresh lilies. As he passed by her, she began to register more vigorously a sense of failure that evening. She had to look beautiful. She was certain she was beautiful, but realized it coldly. To be beautiful in this life, what a shame! But then there was this dinner to attend. There will be present her husband’s colleagues from the university defining the intimacy she shared with her husband. A dinner to celebrate someone’s doctoral thesis; she remembered asking her husband what was it about, and he had looked half way up from his newspaper to grumble something about indigo trade in colonial India. Or was it colonial Bengal, she shrugged.
She wore her new crisp orange mangalgiri cotton sari which had begun to give away its stiffness, cramped up by the tension tearing the humid air. Standing by the dressing table moisturizing her hands so the tight glass bangles won’t cause much trouble to slip, she wondered if Mr. D had noticed her new saree. She made such a ruckus on the day she had bought it. Nobody was free; her mother was down with fever and her husband had lectures the next day, so she went alone to Lajpat Nagar in south of Delhi and bought herself this saree after an hour of tedious deliberation. Nobody had asked about it and until now she had not any occasion to wear it. She saw him stealing glimpses of her albeit in the most languid of ways. He hadn’t noticed her new saree. After all these years, one couldn’t be loved the way one wanted.
She drew back instantly. It was impossible for her to think of this while Mr. D was strutting about the house like a headmaster. She felt a rush of embarrassment on her cheeks. How vain of her to think of love, while there was the dinner to think about, and this dressing for it. Oh, how vain, how vain!
As he entered his daughters’ room, he saw clothes hanging on the small cable television set, drawers opened and forgotten to be shut, like hearts, like wounds; wet towels lying by the bed side table and his girls still not dressed for the event. The girls had been fighting over a silver bracelet that their aunt M. had sent from Calcutta. Mr. D, a man of grave and intense disposition, looked at them one by one, squinted his eyes and left silently. He walked straight into the sitting room, sat in his favourite corner on the comfortable mustard coloured chaise lounge overlooking which was a huge painting centred on the wall, with his hand on his forehead, as if deep in thought. From this corner, he was able to look in all directions. He looked up at the painting. Below the frame was carved ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring,’ Vermeer, 17th century. He had bought this reproduction from a flea market back in his college days in Calcutta.
Mrs. D was still looking into the mirror and almost crying for having wasted precious moments thinking about something she shouldn’t have. She quickly left the remaining bangles on the dressing table and her thoughts frozen in the mirror like blood stains. Hadn’t she sometimes looked for hours at the grey image that grew on the mirror like shadows suggesting the likeness of a new person? Hadn’t she most violently desired to hear that person whisper something? Hadn’t she often left secrets and interrupted conversations in this person’s privacy, and resumed them intermittently, sometimes after a day, sometimes years?
She rushed out to the rescue of her husband and said,
“They are little girls, after all. I’ll go and check on them”.
As she said this, observing his gaze receding from the wall behind him, she noticed a thick sheet of dust shrouding the painting’s lower frame. Had he seen it?
He, on the other hand, chose to not reciprocate to what she said. This was his way; he had colonized conversations; controlled them, administered them. He exacted explanations, he gave none. There was no change in him, it seemed he lay there dead, as a dead outdated fact; his breath, his D-shaped stomach, his eye lids, all lay still. And that was most dangerous about his way of doing things. When he lay silent and still, the paralysis like melancholia spread to other objects and people.
She remembered cleaning the painting, yes. Though it was a long time ago, almost months, if she remembered correctly. She found herself not remembering things these days. The dust, the dust. They are living in a house of dust; one harsh blow of wind alone could reveal all the secrets, she shuddered. The dust. It began to settle in her mind like obtrusive thoughts. It betrayed her privacy, it exposed her, it told people she was clumsy. Mrs. D, no Mr. D’s wife was a clumsy woman. All she has to do was to raise a family and make sure her children didn’t die of asthma living in Delhi. That alone, she couldn’t do. All she did was think of how unloved she felt. She was drooping and melting under the sharpness of her own thoughts like Dali’s clock until A’s loud shriek made her trot faster. Sounds; these sounds. A was hollering. These girls not knowing what they ought to know; so young and innocent for no fault of theirs, unaware that this was the most inappropriate time to cry. She stood there looking at the room, with A crying, and R, the youngest, who adored her eldest sister like a Greek goddess, holding her finger and trying to cry too. S yelped in anger seeing her sisters throwing such histrionics. The doorbell rang. The violence of the moment, the dust, the consciousness of a man sitting and measuring everything behind her; Mrs. D sighed.
“I am not going to this stupid dinner party”, A declared, as if this was the most important decision of her life and everything else to be followed depended on this alone. R, her most religious and ardent follower, repeated the words which held a profound wisdom in them for an eight-year old’s power of comprehension. She ran out of the room, as if to tell the world that the leader of their Buddhist congregation has finally attained the ultimate nirvana.
Mrs.D, standing by the door with nerves so wrecked and a face so calm did not ask her the reasons of her declaration. She reminded her daughters,
“But your father!”
Is that all she could say? Yes, because she had the dust to clean.
R rushed to the sitting area to find her father talking with Mrs. C. Mrs. C, who lived in the neighbourhood, was a stout woman in her early sixties and had the most likeness for Mrs. D. She liked her because, to put it rather plainly, she offered her ready receptiveness becoming of a good host; as she verbalized to her how one must live and go about things, she went deeper and deeper into her dark cave of certitudes. Mrs. D had often wondered about the ability of people like Mrs. C to impress themselves upon others; to enter a room and demand their space right in the middle of people; to raise their hands in a crowd to say, “I”, yes, “I”. Her own timidity, as she often thought it was, shivered in intimidation under the weight of such a power. She, least of everybody, had the temerity to ask Mrs. C to excuse them that night as they had a dinner party to attend.
“I’ll tell you it is so hot outside even at this waning hour of the day! My plants have dried and burnt, Mr. D”, she said, comforting herself on the sofa chair, surveying around for Mrs. D to come and perform her unsaid obligations to her.
“Yes, it is aunty. One cannot see a single mosquito around, though ours is the ground floor”, he replied in the most genial and cordial manner. One could not have imagined that this man was on the verge of shattering glass panes with his gaze and silence a while ago. One must reconsider if this is an exaggeration of the power which Mr. D held on people around him. He was not a cruel person. He was a righteous man. No one could point him in a crowd and say, look here is walking among us a bad man, worse than us for us to put him to shame. He was a man of principles. He did not drink, smoke, beat his wife, or his children. He worked hard as a professor of Economics in the university. Tied his shoelaces fine, combed his hair right, smelled good. But his goodness, abundant goodness as it was, which made him commit genuine acts of generosity all his life, like lending money to debtors he knew were insolvent, giving away his favourite jackets and perfumes to his younger brothers and sisters, was a goodness that always hit others with an inescapable thud of authority. His was an altar of sacrifice and he sacrificed, one could say, people over whom he had no essential right; like his wife to Mrs. C. He wouldn’t have left his daughters for the dinner, that was obvious. His ways of punishment were milder than that, yet crueller. Yet he left R standing alone while talking to Mrs. C, who was quick to reply,
“But a mosquito is not what you want, I tell you Mr. D”, and giggled, so certain of her humour.
R, twisting her legs restlessly, stood for some moments waiting for either of them to pause so she could sweep in and inform about the recent revelations that had taken place in her place of worship. As soon as she found the moment, clever as she was to be able to find it so soon, she pounced upon it.
“Daddy, A and I are not going to the dinner party, because-because (she stammered) S took away her bracelet”, she informed her father just as crisply as Truth must be told. Mr. D looked at his guest in a moment of embarrassment. He politely asked her to leave and inform her mother about the guest and put tea on stove.
The child wondered how bravely the developments were accepted by her father. What a brave man. She rushed in to call her mother smiling away at Mrs. C.
“But your father”, thought Mrs. D standing still on the door, looking aghast with a certain knowledge pounding at her heart. The dust, the dust. She left the room to go and look for a cloth. She often left her children like this, like dust on paintings, like stray thoughts left to grow thick and wild, yet she tormented her mind with leaving them so.
As she began to walk towards the sitting area, snippets from their conversation fell in her way. Some things were said about Kashmir and militancy.
“I am telling you Mrs. C, while these are leaderless protests, one cannot discount the role of separatists and the common man has been fooled yet again into picking up stones against the army”, Mr. D declared.
Mrs. C twitched her nose and scrupulously replied,
“But my son won’t listen to any of it. God knows what they are up to; goes to these protests against the government- tells me over a million little, what do you call them, p-p-pellets are shot in a month maiming and blinding these Kashmiris. What does he have to do with them?”.
Before Mr. D could reply, she saw Mrs. D enter the room. Mrs. C straightened herself up in excitement and called upon her,
“Ah! Don’t you look beautiful? I hear there is a dinner party to attend, is it?”
Mrs. D, still thinking about the dust on the painting, blushed. She disliked to be told she was beautiful. But when she saw her husband square his shoulders, and give her the most reassuring smile, she knew instantly how secure he felt that moment to be. To be sitting before Mrs. C and hear her compliment his wife looking so graceful in an orange cotton saree. So he noticed, she said to herself. But he had borrowed someone else’s gaze. What a perfect moment this was in a day torn apart by the recklessness of his wife and daughters. But something else had caught her attention. Was it the girl from the painting in the blue headscarf, coming out so strongly against the dark background, turning back with her mouth slightly opened as if she wanted to say something urgently, but discreetly, like a century old secret? Mrs. D drew back from the tune of things. The dust needs cleaning, she thought. And the girls need to get ready.
“I’ll make some tea for you, Mrs. C”, she replied with a slight bob of her head.
So much love, so much compassion shoved into a single heart of such fragility compassed around vast tracts of nothingness and mirages, stretched up to the lands from where none returns but ghosts, how will it last, how has it lasted for so long? This was the most unfair way one could divide things; had she been a small child when she grasped this, she would have left everything and rushed to her father to complain; and say that her life took the bigger piece, and then resume peacefully the frivolous continuum of happiness and playing with dolls. Straight she went into the kitchen to put the kettle on boil while the thought of layers of thick dust gnawed at her insides.
As soon as Mrs. C left after a small traffic of conventions and compliments, Mr. D regained his composure. Mrs. C’s arrival reinforced his belief that disorder can be managed, because women of society like Mrs. C still held him in high esteem. He got up at once with new wave of vigour to reset all that had been going wrong that evening. He took a deep breath, smiled at his wife, who was then collecting the used cups and untouched biscuits in a tray, and went to his daughters.
A was stubborn in her decision to not go, and so was R. S was adamant that the bracelet had been exclusively sent to her because aunt M. had already sent A her favourite translation of poetry the previous month. The matter quickly escalated into a war of justice. S had all her facts ready like the time when A had refused to lend her money for the book fare; the time when her mother refused to bake for her but she had done it for R a day before. S was certain there was no one to stand by her so she decided to take it upon herself to be the redeemer. Anything else would tantamount to recanting her firmly held principles. She thought she was now representing all the disenfranchised of the world.
With a grave voice she told her father, as he entered, in measured words, “Papa, this is my bracelet. This is my bracelet”.
Mr. D felt utterly disgusted at such boorish behaviour. He took her most unwillingly and dragged her to his altar of sacrifice, judged her, and held her guilty. He admonished her for being selfish to her sisters. Sacrifice, sacrifice! One must sacrifice; one must be made to sacrifice.
“But no one gets me anything, but no one–”, S broke into tears and barged into the bathroom to hide herself from such gross injustice. The brazen brashness with which the door was shut was too much for Mr. D to take in a day. A and R stood there without moving, frightened by the wild imaginations entering their heads about the next course of events.
Mr. D stormed upon his wife. How could she raise such daughters? How could she not teach them the right values? Over a bracelet? How pitiful! Selfish, that’s the word. Selfish.
“But they are children”, she insisted.
“And they have no manners, do they?”
Over a bracelet, he sighed.
“Oh, don’t be cross with me about it”, she held her words back as her head wilted in surrender. Suddenly she recalled the thick layers of dust on the antique frame. What if he sees the dust right at this moment? He will call her selfish and ill-mannered too. She must not let him see the dust.
“Don’t be cross with you? You wear these fancy sarees while your daughters fight over a bracelet?”
Oh, how cruel. How very cruel. Cruelty was not a difficult thing to be done; as easy as taking an axe and bludgeon something until it shivers, gasps for breath, coils on the floor, turns upside down, begs for mercy, demand as the right of the dying a closure, a goodbye, a chance to meet again; but what was difficult she decided to do- forgiveness- over and over again until she had completely forgotten her ability to be cruel. But she was reminded of that power over and over again until she could not ascertain if the ability to kill something like a pest that deserves not to live was crueller than getting reminded of something so heinous under one’s own skin. But that’s how everything lasts; that’s how people pass the test of time; that’s the price they must pay for being together; that’s the sacrifice one must make if one wishes not to be alone in this world—sacrifice the meanings of words, their significance, of what is done and how is done! That alone is the whetstone for the sharpest swords.
As her husband left her in fury, she grasped the loose end of her orange mangalgiri cotton saree and with one grand sweep collected an entire gathering of decay and dust, looking straight into the eyes of the girl in the painting.
“Aru, Shona, Rimli, we have a dinner party to attend!” she exclaimed and went into her daughters’ room.