When he was a little boy Shabari’s handwriting was so bad that his mother thought he would become a doctor. Later, when he scraped his knee playing cricket, she dreamt that he would be a sports star. When he watched stunt movies his mother thought he would be a police inspector, when he sang, he would be a great playback singer. Many years later when he became a mediocre accountant in a mid-level company in our city, his mother claimed that Shabari, being perfectly honest and having no bad habits at all, was the most eligible bachelor in the neighbourhood.
She carefully looked for a girl who would bring out the best in him. Because the best in him was yet to come, she said. And that was how she got him married to Anita, who she knew would take care of him.
Then she died happily, and no one understood what she meant when she took her last breath and said: ‘Now it’s up to her.’
Sure enough, Anita took care of Shabari and understood that he had true potential. She knew that he wished to one day own a car (even if second-hand), and for that she knew he needed a better salary. On the day he was off for his interview with a bigger company, she fasted and performed puja. She lit lamps at temples, gave money to the poor, and chanted mantras all day.
She had fed Shabari thick milk the night before and commanded that he go to bed early, so that he would be fresh and sharp the next day. This new company, with its stature of being a big multinational, offered to hire him at a lower salary than what he was drawing. But Anita said, ‘It isn’t the salary you draw today. It is the possibilities for tomorrow that will open up,’ and so Shabari
took up the job. On the evening of the first day of work in the new company, Shabari shed a tear in memory of his mother, who had always seen promise in him till the very end. Anita held him close and later in the night they felt young, like they had just been married.
A decade into their marriage, it was clear that they would have no children. Like many childless couples, they filled their world with each other until one understood the other the way twins do.
‘Shabari and I work hard to get Shabari ahead in his career,’ Anita told her friends.
But after he had left for work, she would be alone, all alone. She would make herself a fried snack, switch on the television and, curiously, watch men walking down the catwalk on fashion channels.
She studied the latest leather jackets, the coolest hairdos, the slickest boots, and wristwatches. She would observe the stylish men in advertisements, imagine the scent of the perfumes that were being sold, and look into the masculine eyes that appeared on her screen, reading them. She would be so lost in this that she sometimes wouldn’t hear the cooing of the fishmonger or forget that she had kept milk to boil on the stove. She would observe these beautiful men and try to fathom their beauty, looking for patterns in their appearance and trying to figure out their hidden secrets. Then when Shabari came back, she would get to work on him, especially on special days at his office, like parties or trips.
She would gel his hair, apply cocoa butter on his face, and put cold cucumber slices over his eyelids. ‘It matters, the way you look,’ she would tell him.
Then one day Shabari said, in a matter-of-fact voice, that his appraisal would happen the next week. The bosses at office would sit together, call the employees one by one, and decide whose salaries to hike, whom to promote, etc. If things went well, they could buy a decent second-hand hatchback by the end of the next month or so.
At this, Anita introduced certain changes. She continued giving him a glass of whole milk at night because he needed to be energetic to keep up with the pace of such a large company. She purchased new clothes for both of them, but more for him as he was the one who went out. In fact, at this time she upgraded his entire wardrobe, having realized from the TV that his dressing style was outdated.
‘You’ll spoil him,’ Anita’s friends warned her.
‘Oh, and he still misses his mother after all this,’ she replied coyly.
In the evenings, Shabari reported to her the happenings at his office in extraordinary detail. After a day with the hunks and the blue-eyed colts of the fashion world, she found her husband a refreshing change.
He told her about his immediate boss and the one above that and the one above that and then the final one in this branch (there were countless more bosses in other branches elsewhere). She listened eagerly as he spoke about Lata, who took coffee breaks like her life depended on them; Sapna, who flirted with every man including the one who got them tea; Shekhar, who always smelt of cold balm and had a stuffy nose; and many other characters. He told her that people here were clearly proud of working in such a big place and they showed it by arguing about needless things all day long. Over time, Anita knew all the people in Shabari’s office as though she too was working there with him.
We often said that theirs was a different sort of love. It wasn’t very passionate at all. Nothing steamy between these two. They shared a calm, steady love that seemed to go beyond this world. An all-pervading, cold, silent love that was like the space between the stars.
On the day of his appraisal Anita applied almond oil on his hair. ‘The gel makes you seem a bit too young. You need to look mature today. Capable and mature,’ she explained. She mixed tulsi leaves in his bath so he would smell fresh all day. She made him try on seven different shirts until she could decide which one he would wear. She tied his shoelaces for him so he wouldn’t need to bend and crease his trousers. She made him carry a small amulet for luck that his mother had given her before dying.
‘Woman,’ Shabari said, ‘you act like it’s the end of the world!’ He often called her woman when he felt very warm towards her, the way he remembered his father calling his mother years ago. But when he came back that evening, he looked crestfallen.
In time Anita understood that Shabari wasn’t really interested in his work. He wasn’t quite cut out for appraisals and promotions, despite her best efforts. He was a rather quiet man who didn’t say the right things when the opportunity came, so that many people judged him to lack a certain depth. In a dog-eat-dog world, he preferred to stand apart and watch dogs eat other dogs. He hated office politics and could never step on another’s toe to get ahead.
If he had an idea during meetings, he would keep quiet and later bring it up in private to his immediate boss, who told it to his boss at the right time as his own idea, claiming all the credit. In office parties Shabari did not dance or sing or clap. During team trips he asked if he could bring his wife along while other men fretted and hid from their wives how drunk they got and what indulgences they allowed themselves. He was simply not the kind they set the ladder for in such companies. They only gave him small, nominal hikes and, in some years, nothing at all.
‘I don’t think I am suited for office work,’ he told Anita. But Anita wasn’t the sort to give up just yet. While her body had become rather plump from all the fried snacks and television, her mind was razor-sharp about how to improve things for her husband.
She really started to prepare him for next year’s appraisal at work, spending large amounts of their money on updating his wardrobe. She obtained tip after tip from the fashion channels and male grooming magazines.
On Sundays she made a special mix of egg yolk, curds, and medicinal leaves for his hair. She made him jog in the lane in front of their house for an hour every morning, feeling his small paunch after the exercise the way a sculptor runs his hands over his work mid-creation. She had also started to mix turmeric (which he hated) into his glass of milk at night, so he wouldn’t fall ill often and miss work.
When he seemed to grow younger while she herself showed traces of ageing, she dyed her hair. She did not talk when he was reading the financial section of the newspaper because he needed it to
sharpen his professional skills. When he was back home from work, she let him choose the channel on TV because he needed to relax. She left him alone when he needed solitude and chatted with him when he needed company.
But for all her efforts, Shabari did not get a promotion the next year either. What was worse, he did not care.
Then one day one of his colleagues said during lunch: ‘Shabari, you are growing younger by the day. What’s your secret?’ His colleagues thought Shabari would blush as always.
But not one of his friends quite expected what came out of his mouth. That question was a turning point, because the usually quiet Shabari launched into a long speech about how his woman took care of him!
He had never had such an audience—it seemed like half the office (including two bosses) was around his table as he narrated the stuff that went into his hair and the mixes in his bath and the diet that made his skin glow and the exercise that kept his muscles toned. Everyone looked at each other and
then at him and then again at each other. They hadn’t ever heard Shabari string so many sentences together, far less speak with such gusto about anything. Lata abandoned her lunch and had two cappuccinos while his speech was going on and Shekhar put his spoon down and began rubbing balm on his temples.
But like all landslides, Shabari finally ground to a halt. They ate their lunch in silence for a bit, as though none of them knew how to react. Some were in awe after hearing him speak at such length, but it was clear that most were amused.
Finally, one of the bosses, a particularly thorny character, looked up from his lunch, cleared his throat, and said: ‘That was a passionate speech, Shabari. Now we know why you don’t blend in here. You ought to be working in some fashion channel.’
Shabari’s face fell. While his colleagues tried to hide their laughter, he could feel they were mocking him. He felt slighted, ridiculed. He immediately regretted his outburst. He could’ve kicked himself then and there for the mistake.
When he came back home that evening, Anita knew right away that someone had hurt her husband. She did not ask him what was wrong. Instead, she fed him his favourite dinner and massaged his tired shoulders. Gradually, he turned to her and began telling her what happened at lunch that day, and he ended his narration with a simple sigh: ‘I’m not cut out for office, Anita. I’m not cut out for pretty much anything. You are wasting your attention on me.’
‘No, I’m not,’ she answered, and then she began talking, her eyes twinkling in the moonlight that poured in from the window. She spoke for a long time into the night. In the morning there was a twinkle in his eyes too.
He called up his office and told the thorny boss he was quitting, and that he would come in a little later today and put in his papers. Before the end of that month, they had set up Shabari’s Grooming Centre for Men.
The men at his office were their first and loyal customers. More customers poured in as their
name spread. Anita groomed each customer to his specific body shape, eye colour, hair texture, and skin type. She sculpted men according to their personalities, tinkering with their personalities, modifying their behaviour to suit their aspirations. She massaged their heads, smoothened their wrinkles, plumped up their lips, and brought the twinkle back in their eyes! She groomed each customer the way she did her Shabari.
Oh, the way their business roared! Shabari never regretted giving up his job. It was much more
satisfactory being an assistant to his wife, helping her mix her oils and applying her concoctions on waiting faces and heads.
Like the space between the stars, that was their love. She still takes care of his appearance because he is their ambassador; with his eternal youth, he brings in business. On some nights Shabari cries, thinking of his mother and how proud she would have been.
Excerpted with permission from The Greatest Enemy of Rain, Manu Bhattathiri, Aleph Book Company.