One week to the wedding
He barely recognises the laughter coming out of the kitchen. It doesn’t fit in with the usual morning cacophony of unruly birds screaming in the trees, the vegetable vendor’s off-key raag listing the day’s inventory, the dull thud of the knife slicing into tomatoes, onions and chicken on the cutting board, and the sharp hiss and piercing whistles of the pressure cooker.
No. Today, Pia’s laughter gurgles and bubbles over all the usual din, and as he walks towards her, he picks up on the rapid, almost manic tempo of her speech even though he can’t understand what she’s saying. He presumes she’s sitting at the dining table, talking to someone on her cellphone. Through the doorway, he only catches a glimpse of her bare feet, the toes dancing animatedly to her sing-song voice. He finds himself getting hard at this sight and the sound of her
He inches closer slowly, until he can see a hint of her ankles. The curve of her calves. Closer inspection reveals her faintly scarred knees, and her bare thighs, to the point where her t-shirt is no longer skimming them.
When he steps over the wet rag on the floor, he skids and trips over the bucket of soap water next to it.
Her toes stop dancing.
Her voice drops to a muffled whisper, followed by a silence that amplifies the birds’ shrill screeches, the pressure cooker’s threatening whistle and the sabziwala’s hideous classical ode to his stock of brinjals and carrots. When Raghav finally enters the kitchen, he sees the same old Pia leaning against the counter and fussing over the chicken.
Quiet, languid and almost bovine in both form and movement – this Pia he finds increasingly hard to sexualise as the days go by.
Her plump frame is draped in a faded grey t-shirt that once belonged to him. She borrowed it on the first night she slept over at his place and it has been her favourite ever since. It’s now torn, tattered and falling apart at the seams, and he doubts she’s ever changed out of it in the two years they’ve been dating. Though she once used to swim in it, the fabric clings softly to her new curves. Her wild, curly, unwashed mane is piled up in a haphazard knot held together by a pen. It threatens to fall apart any second, as she stares intently at a soggy printout lying next to the stove.
“Good morning,” he says softly. She turns around. As he stares into her now-round face, with its comically large features – large, mud-coloured eyes, a wide nose and a gaping Julia Roberts smile – he realizes he’s gone soft.
Still, he goes behind her and, circling her waist with his arms, drops a kiss on her nape. “Who was that?” He realises he’s not particularly interested in her response.
“A friend,” she replies, in an equally off-handed tone, her hands folding over his on her stomach with the same absent-mindedness.
Peering over her shoulder, he notices the wet white sheet currently arresting her attention. The first line, written in blotchy ink, reads:
Keto Phase 1: Moroccan Chicken. 360 calories.
“Chai?” she asks.
But he’s already picked up his car keys. On his way out, he spots her cellphone on the drawing room sofa. For a split second, he wonders if Pia has a landline before the aux cord in his car sputters to life and the thumping Progressive beats take over.
She does not change out of the t-shirt she has been wearing all weekend to take a shower and then go to work, as she is supposed to. And she ignores her cellphone, which has been buzzing all morning, still lying on the couch, with “mom” flashing angrily across the screen.
Instead, the sound of Raghav’s car skidding through the driveway gravel, and the first beep of the horn as he exits the front gate and onto the main road, is her cue to grab an ashtray from her living room and a mangled pack of Marlboros from her bag, and head to the storeroom at the far end of the house.
She crosses the large drawing room with blue walls, wooden floors and grey sofas into the corridor leading to two bedrooms – both painted black and white – with sprawling king-sized beds that Pia lays across almost every night by herself, picking one depending on her mood.
It’s a spacious apartment that was designed tastefully by her mother, but Pia managed to strip it off any or all character in the last two years. The flat looks like it hasn’t seen an inhabitant in years. The walls are bare, as are the tables and desks, save for unwanted items such as pens without caps, or books she never intends to finish. The showpieces collect dust, the clothes lie in forgotten piles, the plants droop lifelessly – she walks past all of them unmindfully, finally reaching the door to the third bedroom. It’s been a few months since she’s been on the other side. The lock is brown and rusted, and she has to twist and jiggle the key for several minutes while leaning her entire body weight into the door for it to finally give.
Inside, the room smells of dust. Today, as the tall paint-splattered and cobwebbed walls welcome her to the only part of this house that has ever felt like home, she is drawn to the abandoned ghost town of easels and canvases covered in white sheets.
Pia rips a sheet off one canvas, brushes away the cobwebs and starts working with the new set of oil paints she’d picked up in a spurt of inspiration the day before. She goes through a pack of cigarettes, three cups of black coffee, and more than half the morning, painting her frenzied thoughts. There’s something about all that nicotine and caffeine rushing through her system at the same time that gives her an illusion of control while also agitating and fraying her nerves enough to spill the contents of her brain and heart directly onto the huge expanse of white blankness in front of her.
With violent cigarette puffs and brush strokes, she tries to capture and tame her thoughts – 1970s’ Bollywood movie poster style, while drenching herself in red, blue and yellow in the process. She draws herself doe-eyed and with beehive hair, her expression desperate and wane, as she addresses Raghav in her head: “You know my dad has high blood pressure. You know all he wants is to see me married and maybe a grandchild. You know I’m almost goddamn 30 years old now! I mean, what are we even waiting for? The last of my eggs to die?”
She chooses an unnecessarily flashy, bright red shirt for Raghav, with a blue scarf tied around his neck. The shirt almost matches the colour of his face, as he stands before her, looking like an Angry Young Man.
You’re 27, for God’s sake. Both your father and your eggs have another ten years at least. Stop pressuring me into a decision I am not ready for, she imagines him snapping at her.
So, basically – Ila, her friend from school, interjects – You’re settling for him.
Pia draws her in a vampy get-up, mid-cabaret, a la Helen. For her mother, she chooses the only Bollywood mother template she knows. She meshes her features with Nirupama Roy’s trademark greying hair, white sari and bindi (that her own mother in crisp Fabindia salwar kameezes – her hair blow-dried and still black, with brown and honey highlights – would scoff at).
He treats you well. He takes care of you. How is that settling? Pia imagines her saying, with a sad violin wailing in the background.
She then takes a step back, tired and filthy from the paint, sweat, and tears.
But the voices don’t leave.
Excerpted with permission from Batshit, Kritika Kapoor, Pan Macmillan India.