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Unbuttoning Lady X
Delhi is a city where things happen undercover. A city where the horizon is blanketed with particulate pollution and the days are hot. A city with no romance but a lot of passion. You ask how passion without romance is possible? The same way sex without a nightlife is possible. Delhi churns slowly, secretively. What emerges is urgency.
In the Delhi I grew up in, everything happened. Married women fell in love with pubescent girls, boys climbed up sewage pipes to consort with their neighbors' wives, and students went down on their science teachers in the lab. But no one ever talked about it.
I used to be innocent, driven solely by the ambition to do something great for my country, something that involved physics. My knowledge of the facts of life was based entirely on books, and clean ones at that. I read nineteenth-century classics by George Eliot and Emily Brontë. These books never went into any details. To remedy this I decided to read Vatsyayana's Kamasutra. I had to do this while standing in the scooter garage, which had been converted into a storeroom. I would sneak out with a flashlight after my parents had gone to sleep. The Kamasutra that I force-fed myself seemed completely of another world, alien and absurd. After I read it, however, magical things started to happen. In particular, I met a woman. We first met in my school. She had come to attend the parent-teacher meeting. I was the Head Prefect.
"Where are the teachers for Class I?" she asked.
"In the Pushkin Block, ma'am," I replied.
I was susceptible at that age. I had been reading The Citadel by A. J. Cronin, in which the main female character was described as particularly handsome. I fancied for a moment that she was that handsome woman.
"I'll take you there, ma'am," I offered.
"What's your name?"
"Anamika," I replied.
"I like your tie," she said.
"Oh." I tugged and fiddled with my polyester number while we walked, suddenly conscious of the ridiculous figure I must cut in my school uniform of red socks and shirtsleeves. Like most schools, mine had a strict dress code. The girls wore gray box-pleated skirts. Boys up to the age of fourteen wore knickers. Everyone wore a striped red and silver tie except for the Prefects. We wore a silver and blue one.
I hated the ageism of Delhi and its antediluvian norms, which required you to address anyone older as Uncleji or Auntyji and anyone younger with diminutives. It precluded serious bonding with people older than you. I did not have the courage to ask this woman her name. She was of another generation; that sort of thing was just not done.
After I left her in front of the Pushkin Block, I felt my heart overflow with some kind of knowledge I could not immediately identify. I had imagined so many times how Newton must have felt when the apple dropped on his head and the weight of gravitational forces clicked into place. I fancied I felt that way, that a great discovery had just been made and all I had to do was write down its formula. I wished a simple object like an apple had been involved, something tangible that I could contemplate and hold, smell and bite.
I felt the urge to call her something. Something that no one else was called. A word that was not a name and that was still proportional to the immensity of the revelation unfolding within me. "India" was the first thing that slipped silently from my lips.
I hung around that part of campus so I could catch her on the way out. Eventually she emerged from the same doors that had earlier swallowed her. I pretended to look elsewhere. She came up behind me and tapped my shoulder.
"Do you like this school? I am thinking of putting my son in it," she said.
"Yes. Extracurricular activities are encouraged. We have horse riding."
"Do you know how to ride?"
"Yes, I've done it since Class II."
"I've always wanted to ride horses. But with so many extracurriculars, will you still do well on the board exams?" she asked.
"I probably will. I love to study."
"You'll do well no matter. You are obviously exceptional." She looked at the Head Prefect badge on my left breast pocket and smiled.
I shrugged. I was embarrassed but didn't want to show it.
"I have to go now. Drop by if you want to chat. Ride your bike over."
"How do you know I have a bike?"
"I've seen you bike around. I live in B-63. Come for a cold coffee on Saturday morning."
"That's tomorrow," she said, squeezing my hand, and left.
I couldn't place her. Indians, myself included, must immediately place everyone we meet. We are a nation of taxonomists. It must be in our genes because of the caste system. There are categories for everything—educated or not, foreign car or not, brahmin or banya or what, English-speaking or not, meat-eating or not, if vegetarian then whether an eggitarian or strict, if strict then too strict to eat Western desserts with egg or not. All this in the case of women helps predict whether they might be led astray. In the case of men, whether they will misbehave with women given half a chance, take bribes, support their parents in old age, and on and on.
The system works. It is a science, thousands of years old, that has been taken to the level of a fine art. I often scorned it, but if I had to put my hand on my heart I'd have to admit that I operated by it. It was natural for me to classify people at first sight without even being aware of it. Love happens on the edges. It happens when one can't place someone; so does hate. India was an enigma. And correspondingly rife with possibility, rich in her meanings and bountiful.
That evening was like most other Friday evenings. I went with my parents to a dinner party. The ladies all sat in one section of the living room and the gents in the other. Thanks to my age I could mill around both groups. No other kids were present. My parents often took me with them to social occasions. Over the years I'd gotten used to the company of people much older than myself.
"Do you know a good servant? Mine is going on leave for a month," lady A said.
"Mine is giving trouble," lady B chimed in.
"Servants these days, I tell you," added lady C.
I walked over to the other side where the men were discussing the India and Pakistan cricket match. I have nothing against sports, but men with thickening waists and a couple of artificial valves in their hearts discussing a five-day test match are not the most spectacular company. I went back to the women and decided to entertain myself. They were all wearing saris, their ample midriffs gathering around the folds of their waists, the shapelessness of their backs clearly visible. I visualized them minus their small, tight blouses. One of the reasons for the accuracy of the classification system is that its criteria are always spur of the moment and can be tailored to fit the occasion. Each situation generates its own classification. For example, the most obvious question to ask when you unbutton an Indian woman's blouse is whether she waxes her underarms. There are other less interesting ones, like what sort of bra she is wearing. This second question is not intrinsically uninteresting, but at that time there was just one company that made quality undergarments for women, and it made only five designs.
I was able to classify most of the women at first glance. One woman, let's call her lady X, was difficult to place. I unbuttoned her blouse several times in my head and tried imagining the two scenarios—waxed or not. Each seemed equally likely. I observed her closely for more clues.
If a woman doesn't wax her underarms, it's either because she's terribly old-fashioned, or terribly postmodern. I couldn't tell if lady X was a radical feminist. I was certain she wasn't old-fashioned. If a woman does wax her underarms she might be very hip or just middle-class in her mentality. If I could get her type down I'd know which parts of her body she depilated. Or if I knew which parts she depilated I could get her type down.
The hostess announced dinner while I was busy unbuttoning lady X. I took the general movement around the room as an opportunity to strike up a conversation with her. In a minute I discovered that she read no books, went to the beauty parlor for pedicures, and didn't work. I lost interest in her. The inquiry was complete. She did indeed wax and was predictably bourgeois.
I wondered about India, but the idea of unbuttoning her blouse filled me with such turmoil that I abandoned the half thought to the samosas on my plate.
Cycling on Saturday
Before leaving for India's house the next morning, I agonized about what to wear. A lot of my clothes were still young and girlie. I chose my red striped boys' shirt and jeans. I wore black boys' shoes, slapped some Old Spice on my neck from my father's toilette, and rode my bicycle over. I went at ten since she hadn't told me when to come. Nine seemed too early for a Saturday. My stomach was knotted, and my back felt very tight.
India was beautiful, and she was waiting for me. My tongue was jammed in my throat. This made polite conversation somewhat inconvenient. When she offered to make me a frothy coffee shake, I followed her into the kitchen and got ice cubes from the fridge on her orders. We took our tall glasses of cold coffee and went to the veranda in the rear of her house. I sat on the cemented ground at her feet, my shoulders leaning against the legs of her cane garden chair. I was afraid of turning around and meeting her gaze. I was embarrassed by the thoughts I had had about her the previous night. It didn't matter that I had unbuttoned all the other women's blouses; only with India was there something indecent about it.
We talked about my school and her son for a while. I had not discussed anything in this fashion with a grown-up before. My parents, their friends, and my teachers treated me like a kid, albeit a mature one. India was talking to me like I was an adult.
"Where is your son?" I asked.
"Till I can arrange for him to change schools, he's going to be with his dad."
She was divorced, and we were alone. Both facts made me unreasonably excited.
"How long can you stay?" she asked.
"About an hour," I said. I routinely went cycling for an hour on Saturday. If I stayed longer my mother would definitely ask me where I had been.
India lit a cigarette and started to smoke. I didn't know any women who smoked. I had seen women from the jhuggis smoke bidis, and once at a very snobbish party that one of my father's work contacts had invited us to, a few women had been smoking. We sat quietly while India smoked. When she was finished she threw the cigarette stub by her foot and crushed it.
"You have such thick hair," she said, running her hand through it. My hair was out of control and, according to Sheela, a girl in my class, Jimi Hendrix-like. I had to wash it every day so it wouldn't get knotted. As soon as it grew down to my shoulders, the curls would take on a life of their own, and I would have to trim it.
"Want me to put oil in your hair?" she asked.
I personally could not stand the idea of scented coconut oil dribbling down my scalp. The advertisements on TV for Parachute coconut oil were aimed at the likes of lady X. But I did not want to say no to India. Not ever and not for anything.
"We're having problems with our water supply, and I won't be able to wash it off," I said. Then without thinking I said, "But I could put oil in your hair."
"That would be lovely," she said. I realized I had made a smooth move.
We went into her bedroom. She put oil in a small steel bowl and lay down on the bed with a towel under her head. As I massaged the oil into her black tresses, she let out little ooh-aahs of pleasure. I got absorbed in her glistening skin and in the way my fingers slid easily because of the oil. After her hair had soaked up the fluid I massaged the base of her neck.
"An hour is up. I don't want you to be late. Your mother will worry," she said.
I brushed my forefinger on her neck one last time and got up. She walked me to her gate, where we stood in an uncomfortable silence. I wanted to hug her, but my heart was making embarrassing noises, and if I moved closer I was sure that she would hear them.
"I hope you'll come again," she said.
I was taken aback by her formality. I mounted my bike and put my foot on the pedal.
"Next Saturday, come early," she said, patting the steel carrier behind the seat of my bike. Without turning around I made an affirmative noise in my throat. Then I pedaled away furiously.
After I turned the corner I slowed down. I was not ready to go home. Between India's house and mine there was a vacant plot of land where a building was under construction. The workers had built jhuggis on one end of the site. They lived there with their children. I decided to take a shortcut and ride my bike through this stretch to avoid the main road. One section of the plot was empty. I thought I'd be able to avoid the jhuggis and the workers. A good three-fourths of the way through I noticed a woman squatting behind a bush, no doubt taking a pee. I got off my bike and stood still. I didn't want to ride behind her and scare her. I tried to look away but couldn't. I watched her peeing from the corner of my eye. Her sari was hitched up, and her ankles were visible.
After a few seconds the woman got up, turned around, and saw me. Her skin was dark from being exposed to the sun all day. A fiery red line of sindhoor adorned the parting of her hair, indicating that she was married. She stared at me, and then in an exaggerated gesture she turned, lifted her sari all the way up to her bare ass, and jiggled her backside. I thought she was trying to spite me for having stared at her, but then she turned back around, looked me in the eye, and walked away.