she hadn’t seen it coming, she hadn’t even slightly considered the possibility… not in a very long time, that is. how long had it been? olivia frowned abstractedly, sitting on the edge of the bed. her breath had a shiver in it as she inhaled, but she let her mind go back all the way to the first time she’d seen avi… abhik.
he was in a printed navy shirt, it was snug around his wide shoulders and chest, he had a twinkle in his eyes… did men wear shirts with little prints on them? not her father or brothers, but his eyes she’d not been able to look away from; and his voice… “hi, olivia,” was all that he had said when mark introduced them, she’d wanted to strain her ears and catch a little more of the sound. just a “hi, olivia,” and she’d felt breathless… no, disheveled, yes, that would be closer to how she’d felt. ridiculous.
mark was a good friend of hers, they’d planned to see kramer vs kramer when it finally released in calcutta. he had called her the day before and asked if she were fine with him bringing along avi, a class mate of his. mark was in the final year of b.a. she was already working at the newspaper by then. though mark and she were the same age, she’d finished college a year ahead of of him. a quirk of the school boards in different states had brought that about. while everyone adopted the “ten plus two” system, with its additional class twelve, delhi had held back for a year. perhaps being the capital, it just did as it pleased. she had grown up in delhi, then joined college in calcutta “gaining” a year.
olivia started. how does a voice get inside you like this? where does it stay? in the brain? then why did it feel as if it were roaming within her, were there empty spaces in us where we stored such things? but why was she thinking of kramer vs kramer and avi’s voice now? she was supposed to count how many years it had been since they’d met, or was it since they’d fallen in love… or since they’d married? she felt her throat go dry. thirty-five years since that day they’d gone for the movie. she had sat next to mark and been completely aware of his friend sitting on the other side. “stop acting like an idiot,” she’d told herself and tried to concentrate on dustin hoffman. meryl streep was beautiful… but why couldn’t she focus on the movie? they’d married two years later.
she had had no idea how she’d meet him again after the movie; also he was sort of “junior” to her, wasn’t he? she had tried to be cool; this was nothing much, just a passing attraction, he was a nice looking chap, there were plenty of them, well maybe not that many, but still… oh, she had talked to herself a lot. but when she had seen him standing at the reception of her office, she hadn’t been able to saunter or walk with unhurried pace, she had smiled before she knew it and had almost run over to him.
his eyes had glittered. she had babbled something. he was looking for the advertising department, a classified ad… she hadn’t asked him, why he had looked for her in which case… it was a fairly simple affair, the receptionist would have directed him. in fact, there was an office in park street which took such ads for the paper. he needn’t have come all the way.
they’d gone out for tea to a small restaurant next to her office. they’d sat across from each other and he had told her of his hopes of getting into business school, finding a job. he had considered becoming an academic but then decided the world was too exciting a place not to be explored beyond the comfort of books and theses and the cocoon of the scholarly realm. for some reason, she had wondered what it would be like to travel through south america with him on a bike. she didn’t know how to ride a motor bike. and south america? there were two hookers at the table behind, trying to please their elderly customer who was in a dhoti. this was their first date, a warm day in early april.
avi had invited her to his place just before she got off the bus. free school street came long before his stop on rashbehari. it was a small party for his cousin from bombay, he had said; mark was coming, would she like to come? she had tried to sound calm as she accepted. he had smiled slightly.
there must have been at least thirty people in the large hall of the rambling old house. his mother and a couple of aunts were there as well. ma, shejo kakima, ranga kakima. she had liked his mother, his father had passed away many years ago. this was his father’s ancestral home. he had grown up here with his cousins, uncles, and aunts. he had never liked his grandfather he’d said, his grandmother he absolutely loved. funny how strong our feelings can be. he rarely mentioned his grandfather, but even now, when he ate something he enjoyed, he would speak of his nani at some point, she was a great cook.
of course, there had been objections to their marriage. he was hindu, she was christian. he was bengali, she was anglo indian. he was fair, she was dark… she almost grinned as she remembered she’d add that in while talking to her parents and routinely her father would protest, “dark? nonsense! you’re beautiful, darling!” their ways and backgrounds, her parents had said to her, were too different. they would not be able to “adjust.” she had tried not to show her feelings about that curious word people uttered when they spoke of marriage. there was another problem, avi was six months younger than her.
his mother had actually been far more understanding, but she had worried as well. her parents had come around after avi started working in a large, well known company. maybe that had helped ease the tension in their minds a little. she knew more than anything, they were concerned about her happiness. a bengali boy with twinkling eyes who was still in college wasn’t their idea of a match for their only daughter.
she inhaled, feeling the air on her tongue, then surging through her throat. that first time avi had kissed her under the staircase. her eyes closed involuntarily as the memory came. her lips felt a parch and a longing.
did the girl feel like that when he kissed her?
everything went black for a moment. olivia had never known such darkness.
he had been distracted of late. the travel had been intense from the beginning and ever since moving to singapore almost seventeen years ago, it had crossed all time zones, perhaps even limits of endurance. almost two hundred days a year he was way. he worked nonstop as well, he liked to.
she could sense he hadn’t been quite himself for a while. she tried to tell him he needed to ease the pace a little, after all, they were almost fifty-five now.
they had had trouble “adjusting” as her parents had argued, but then one unmarked day or point in time that became a thing of the past. almost imperceptibly, a new sensation entered their relationship… it was as if there was no separation any longer, no distance between them, not really. no effort, no conscious thought was needed to include avi, he was always there, somewhere inside her… how and where exactly, was hard to pinpoint. their moments together formed a continuum in her memory, her being, even moments she wasn’t part of were in it.
when she started noticing this, it surprised her at first, she’d not known this might happen. it was a strange and yet pleasant feeling. sometimes she could read his mind, feel his tiredness, pick up on his excitement or fear.
of course, they still fought and disagreed and even threatened to quit, but they both knew that was never going to happen.
then how come she had not suspected a thing?
how could she have missed it? and really? did he really…
she had told him once, way back when they were still dating, that she understood human beings might err. no one could be strong and correct all the time. so, she had laughed, if he ever got attracted to someone else, or had an affair, she would try to look at it objectively. a lot would depend on the circumstances… he had shaken his head and sipped his cold coffee. she had been quite clear… if it were a mistake, a weakness of the moment, she’d forgive him and never ask any questions, but if he had feelings for the girl, well… it was over.
he had countered with a straight face, “then i’d better make sure there are feelings.”
her ears had gone hot but then, since she had started the whole thing, she’d tried to be nonchalant.
he had never even once said anything about her having an affair.
as the thoughts came, she could feel the warmth of sun rays on her arms and neck from a late afternoon far away. they’d slanted in through the wooden shutters as avi and she sat in his room, just talking, after lunch. his mother had made a wonderful mutton curry, the sunday staple at his home.
she’d seen them as she had walked into the restaurant. they weren’t holding hands or touching each other or anything like that. but she’d known from the way he sat, his neck craning a bit, his entire attention on her, a slight smile on his lips.
she had known instantly, even before she could think. the woman opposite him was more than a friend or acquaintance. the feeling had torn through her. her knees had felt weak, her throat was dry.
she had taken a deep breath, told herself not to be a fool and jump to conclusions, and walked up to them.
he had looked up a little startled, then smiled. but between the startle and the smile there had been an immeasurable, almost invisible stretch of time, in which she had seen naked guilt on his face, in those eyes, and a lick of defiant anger. she had wanted to slap him, she had wanted to hug him, she had wanted to drag him from there and take him home.
her name was rashmi. she was a financial consultant. she could walk on five-inch heels and look gorgeous and vulnerable at once.
“when did avi start liking such obvious women?” a resolutely ticking part of her mind had asked as she had gone through the motions, shaken hands with a woman who was never supposed to be in her life, in their life; and watched her walk away from the table. they had just finished lunch, apparently.
avi had asked her what she was doing here in shenton way… rashmi, he’d thrown in casually, worked in the building, they’d met through a colleague of his… they were just “catching a bite.”
catching a bite. that was so avi. and he was trying hard to be nonchalant she could see.
he had denied it. she had wanted to believe him. but some things are what they are.
the bed felt warm and secure, she wished she could curl up and lie down and go to sleep for a while. maybe when she woke up, all this would be gone. she knew it wouldn’t. a blinding heat shot through the back of her eyelids.
how often she had lain right here with him. her body felt his touch, arching instinctively. were we ultimately just a series of pavlovian responses, all conditioned to known stimuli? he was here, lying by her side, she would tell him about something aloka had done or they’d speak about ritwik’s exams or maybe he’d tell her about his latest exploits in brazil. work took him everywhere, even south america.
olivia sat up abruptly. she clutched the edge of the mattress, why was everything swaying like this?
and this rashmi… was she a nice human being? would she be good to avi, good for avi?
olivia couldn’t stop herself, she worried for avi, she didn’t want him to get hurt. he would feel the same way, she was sure… if she ever… ever… if she ever fell in love with someone else, she said the words to herself in a rush before something stopped her. yes, he would also like to make sure she was okay, the person was not going to harm her. how do you cut someone off just like that? how do i stop loving you, avi… how do i let you go from me, from every memory, from all that you are to me, have always been… thirty-five years is no less than always.
olivia sat still on the edge of the bed.
“mum!” it was margaret, their maid.
olivia looked at her with vacant eyes. hadn’t she locked the door?
“tea, mum,” margaret said quietly, holding out the tray with the cup. her “ma’am” always sounded like “mum.”
the pink flowers on the fine china, how avi hated it… well, maybe not hated, but he was not drinking tea from a cup with pink flowers that was certain, he’d said. then bought her the cups anyway.
olivia picked up the cup and took a sip of hot tea. it was just the way she liked it. margaret was still standing beside her, she looked up at the woman who had taken care of their home for years now. margaret was watching her, an inexplicable something in her eyes. why was margaret…?
olivia suddenly realised why. why margaret had sent a large chunk of savings home so her husband could get out of a tricky situation. he’d got a girl pregnant, the money was for the abortion and the girl’s silence about the matter. of course, margaret had not told her, but news like this finds a way of reaching you. the part-time maid had apprised her of it during one of her usual complaining sessions about margaret.
she had been shocked she remembered. why would margaret do such a stupid thing and bail out that wretched, useless husband of hers? she’d felt terrible for margaret, even angry at her acceptance of such egregious behaviour. she had said nothing.
as she looked at margaret now, she sensed a love more complex and congealed… not all its sides were pretty, nor even right. but to margaret, who had known her husband since she was fifteen, he was part of life, nothing could destroy that. she needed perhaps that love even if it were a mere illusion, so she could keep going, doing what she did, staying miles away from home and family, working in someone’s house, doing a job that is vital and yet will only be considered “lowly”, somehow shameful.
maybe there was also another facet to this. in her own way, margaret was letting her husband know, she was essential to him. only she could save him. the power was hers.
and yet olivia knew more than anything, it was margaret’s love for her husband.
she pulled the suitcase along after her walking down the corridor.
he had finally said, yes, he had been meeting that girl. it was nothing, a mistake, an aberration… he would stop seeing her. this was the first time, in all these years, all the travel, the days and days away… never, not once, had there been anything. not once.
somewhere in the middle of it all, she’d heard “hi, olivia,” she’d wanted to linger and catch its last echoes; and then she’d seen him sitting, his neck craning a bit. and she had felt the end… deep within her, on the surface of her skin. the sun rays no longer were pouring in through the shutters.
she had said she could handle an “affair,” she had thought one could rationally look at such things, be prepared. affair, adjust… what did these words even mean? sometimes a quirk in a system lets you gain a year. sometimes you just lose everything.
avi’s eyes were always so bright. the monitor said her plane was boarding, she walked toward the gate.
it’s a painful subject, sometimes i think about it. this story too is somehow connected to that large old house that’s always been part of my life… the beginning of olivia and avi inextricably linked to its shutters and people and sunlight. “kakima” is how bengalis address their aunts married to the father’s younger brother. “shejo” is the third one among many siblings, “ranga” means red, a much loved colour, a feeling of joy goes with it i think. thanks so much for reading.