Pushing her husband’s leg off her body, she sat up. It was very dark all around. In front of her was a small square of brightness drawn by the faint light that had entered from the street.

The regular ebb and flow of long breaths. His face was vague in the darkness. But even the shape of his nose was sharply etched in her heart. Not moving their entwined arms, she caressed her sleeping husband’s head and wondered: why is this? It’s bad. This habit. Sitting up at midnight and thinking of random things. Not reaching anywhere, ending up with even more tangled knots. In the end, when she slipped into sleep leaning on the headboard of the bed, when she woke up late in the morning, only fatigue and irritation would remain.

She sat there quietly, running her fingers on her half-opened mouth, her smooth stomach. Pure insolence like her aunt used to say long back. This is the trouble when everything goes perfectly, she would remark. Look at her strut. What in heaven does she lack, really?

Long, luxuriant tresses, lightly tied at the tip. Eyes lined with kohl; the spot of kumkum on the forehead. Each time she felt smaller and flustered in front of the love that held her close. The love that lined her eyes with kohl whenever she forgot it. She tried to add up. Where did it go wrong? The sanctity of the temple, the sincerity of the praying man. Once he said: To get the chance to love that which we adore . . . that’s what one needs luck for. She was lying with her head on her husband’s chest as he said it. His slender, smooth fingers ran gently all over her body. Lovingly, as if he were caressing a flower. Somewhere behind her eyes, the tears sprang up. They simmered within, unable to break out. Drawing on his stubbly beard with her forefinger, she had told him that day: I know now what beauty is and what happiness is.

He kissed her on the parting of her hair and held her hand firmly. But when she remembered the cold indifference of her body – how it was so then as it is now, she corrected herself. No. I wasn’t lying then. But as she stood helpless before that sentence that could never be completed, she heard the voice of her husband’s heart with utmost clarity. Her heart, however, was unclear.

Rubbing the end of her braided hair on his cheek, he laughed, “You are lukewarm, girlie!” She quickly grasped what he meant. It was always this way. Not disappointed, not angry, he let himself be conquered by it. Whenever she teetered between helplessness and anger, her husband’s voice sounded pathetic. In trying to affirm love, she thought, I am losing the little I have. It was no one’s fault. There was a time when she watched a man, someone who looked after the farm back home, walk into the narrow path behind the cowshed leading to the fields; it made her heart pound in her ears. The sight of the white shirt approaching from the distance would make the pores of her body burst into bloom. She thought that her quivering legs might give way if their eyes met . . . the thrill of it!

That thrill must have fallen off in some little bylane of the past. She never found it again. The bunch of kaitha flowers thrown under the fence, slipped under watching eyes, was far prettier to her than any of the gifts she had received in the past four years. Then, when she gazed beyond the rolling paddy fields unable to even move an eyelid, her mind was light. Only that the sight of the blue pea flower’s smile blooming against a sheet of full and brilliant sunlight seemed very beautiful.

Those evenings in which cheeks, flushed when their garments had brushed against each other near the clump of bamboo, peeped in the mirror. Mornings in which one smiled at the tiny doves in their nests while drawing water from the well.


The bedroom lamp brightened.

“Uh?” More anxiety than lingering sleep.

“Where is the blanket? I am cold.”

He held her close and whispered in her ear: “Why do you need a blanket for that?”

She felt utterly furious with herself – not even a pore had stirred.

“I am sleepy.” She blurted out.

A second. At the end of a sigh, he held her hands even more. Then, caressing her eyelids, he said: “Sleep.”

As she closed her eyes praying for the sleep that was never to come, the man’s heartbeat destroyed her peace. Her own heart, pounding extraordinarily. She was filled with disgust. The insides of her eyelids were hollows, bereft of dreams. She opened her eyes out of fear, disgust. When she turned like she was in sleep, she noticed a part of that hairy chest. The arm around her was still tight. In front of her now was a wall on which darkness was pasted. Why was her heart pounding so, she thought. Why aren’t the kids in the next room screaming? Mirages, all. The inside of one set of four walls was the same as the inside of another such set. Oh, only if the milkwoman came soon. In the light of the bedroom lamp, the shape of the flowers on the table is that of a camel. Inside the wardrobe, many empty hangers. The ever-smiling Sreekrishna statuette in front of the bronze lamp. As her eyes wandered aimlessly, she wished again fervently. If the milkwoman came, the pots and pans in the kitchen will stir awake. This will end in the faint and pleasant light of dawn. This suffocation.

The unending ticking of the clock. With unbearable disgust, she switched off the light. It was just two o’clock at night. Hours to go. So many hours to go before dawn. She turned away from the tears that had fallen on the satin pillowcase and pressed her hand on her husband’s cheek. “Come,” she said, wiping off the wetness of her tears. “I am not sleepy at all.”

Excerpted with permission from Subversive Whispers, Manasi, translated from the Malayalam by J Devika, Penguin India.