That’s a beautiful sari, he said loudly.
Ganga nodded her head, her face still pointed away.
Is that your mother’s too?
She nodded once more, and picked up one of the little stones from the border of the bed in front her, began rolling it lightly across the palm of her left hand. Running along her forearm, Dinesh noticed, was a long, elevated scar, lighter than the rest of her skin and smooth apart from a few slightly distended serrations perpendicular to its length. He sat up and instinctively brought his right hand next to it, his fingertips hovering close to her skin without quite touching it.
Ganga stopped playing with the stone.
When did you get that? Dinesh asked.
She didn’t answer at once, as though she couldn’t tell immediately.
It happened some time ago. I jumped into a bunker without looking.
Does it hurt still?
Can’t you see it’s healed?
I have a wound like that too, but sometimes it still hurts. Dinesh stretched out his left leg and lifted up his sarong to show a laceration that extended from the back of his knee down to just above the heel. Unlike hers it did not protrude out from the skin but was sunken in and of a shiny, almost polythene consistency. It’s from a piece of shrapnel.
Ganga looked at his scar, looked at her own, then turned back to the stone she’d been rolling on her palm. It was hard for Dinesh to know whether she could understand any of the things he said, or whether for that matter she even understood her own words. She had a habit of squinting slightly and pausing before she said anything, her eyes far away, searching, and when at last she spoke her words seemed detached, as if coming from a source external to her, from muscles moving mechanically in her tongue, mouth, and throat. Furrowing her brows, she would listen to these words as intently as he did, as though she herself was somehow clueless about what she had just said.
Perhaps he was the same way too, when he spoke, it was hard to say. Dinesh lowered his sarong and crossed his legs. He shifted back towards the rock, leaned against the dry, mossy surface as if to get some rest, and then glancing once more at Ganga, felt again the urge to speak. If he waited too long it would be difficult to resume talking he was afraid, each of them would fall back into their separate worlds, and the conversation would come to a permanent end.
How far are you in your studies?
Ganga opened her lips as if about to say something and then closed them again. She let the stone lie still in her hand and then put it down, almost reluctantly, on the ground between them. It was unclear from her face whether she hadn’t heard the question properly, whether she’d heard the question but hadn’t understood, or whether she’d understood its meaning but simply didn’t know what to say. She stared at the ground for a while before her lips moved finally and a few words, scarcely audible, came out.
I finished O-levels a year ago.
Did you start studying for A-levels?
She nodded slowly.
But school closed a few weeks after starting.
In Malayaalapuram, no?
What school did you go to?
Malayaalapuram Hindu Girls’ College.
Dinesh paused for a moment on hearing this, then searched for another question.
What path were you on?
Were you good at maths?
Ganga thought for a moment and then her eyebrows furrowed in irritation.
How should I know?
Dinesh was still for a while, then picked up the stone that Ganga had put down and examined it in his hand. He held it between his thumb and forefinger and pressed hard, felt its rough, uneven edges against his fingertips, surprised almost that it didn’t melt or crumble under the pressure he exerted.
I did science, he said quietly.
Ganga didn’t respond.
I came second in my A-level batch. The only boy ahead of me in the district got a place at university. I missed by only a few marks.
He waited for her to say something but she didn’t look up.
My favourite subject was biology.
Again there was no response. Dinesh put the pebble back in its place on the border of the bed. He felt slightly foolish, as though he had just betrayed some kind of ignorance or stupidity. Why he’d asked about her studies of all things he didn’t know. He hadn’t thought of school life in so long, and then suddenly those words had come out of him, A-levels, university, maths, biology. They’d come out almost in- voluntarily, and as soon as he heard them he’d felt the great distance between him and them, as with a photo from childhood in which one’s face is recognisable, while the mood and thoughts that must have animated it have gone.
School and exams had been part of his life of course, had been part of how he’d lived, but what reason was there to talk about his past now, or to ask Ganga to tell about hers? They had left them behind so long ago, what was the point in speaking of them, what relevance did their pasts have to who they were now?
Dinesh thought of all the abandoned and destroyed buildings he used to play in as a child, many years before, not long after the movement had liberated his village and the surrounding area for the first time, when he would climb in quietly over the half-collapsed palm leaf fences, through the wild, disused gardens, and wander into the interiors of all the broken structures. The crumbling walls would be sprayed with bullet holes, and where they weren’t completely perforated the orange brick would be visible like bleeding wounds. Moving about silently he would wade through all the dust and debris, poking and prodding the broken terracotta tiles from caved-in roofs, the rotting wooden planks from doors and ceilings, the shattered ceramic basins, the warped, rusting iron of foundations and reinforcements.
There were dozens of damaged buildings near his home to explore, but no matter how different their character or purpose had been, whether they were once houses, shops, schools, or shrines, the rubble of all the buildings ruined by the fighting had always looked the same. You could find, of course, among the fragments of plaster, concrete, wood, and brick, things that taught you about what the buildings had been, about who they had housed and what purpose they had served. The remains of a desk at which a child had once sat and studied, the rusted shell of a pot or kettle in a lost family’s kitchen, or the tarnished brass bell and broken plaster sculpture of a roadside temple.
But apart from these small, useless vestiges of their histories, the war had reduced all these buildings to the same state, and so what use was there really in combing through the ruins? What point could there be, except for childish curiosity, in trying to learn the identity of these destroyed structures, what point was there when the best thing would have been to clear away all the rubble, to raze whatever was left, and build in its place whatever was necessary for the future, completely new?
But if they couldn’t talk about their pasts, what could they say to each other at all, given that there was no future for them to speak of either?
The leaves rustled softly around them, and Dinesh looked again at Ganga. She was looking down still and it was impossible to tell if she was still annoyed. He spoke in a quiet voice.
Are you happy we’re married?
She looked at him and mumbled something he couldn’t understand.
If you like, he went on, we can have a proper wedding later on.
Ganga remained silent for a while, then suddenly stood up.
Are you hungry?
Dinesh looked up at her slightly surprised. He had hardly eaten in the last few days but had grown used to being hungry, and hadn’t even thought about finding something to eat. He stood up and fumbled with his sarong, which had become loose from being seated.
I have to cook some rice for my father, said Ganga. I’ll make some for you too.
Dinesh smiled awkwardly, embarrassed by the offer.
It isn’t necessary.
It won’t make any difference.
Excerpted with permission from The Story of a Brief Marriage, Anuk Arudpragasam, Fourth Estate, HarperCollins India.