I will never forget Lily’s face when she heard his words. Madhav smoothed his ruffled hair, and started putting the cushion covers and carpets back in their places. Silence reigned in the room. Lily calmly opened the door and stepped out. Overwhelmed, I sat down heavily on the settee. After confirming that Lily had left, Madhav locked the door and knelt before me. He lifted my feet into his hands and buried his face in them. His long eyelashes stroked my feet. And I melted like butter.
Later, he took me to bed. “Please don’t be sad,” he implored. Though I felt like crying, I smiled. He made me sleep and then left our home. Afterwards he called up to inquire if I was feeling better. He returned rather late that night and, holding me close, slept contentedly.
In that dingy brown room of the Maighar, hemmed in by chipped walls replete with numerous cracks, as I lay on the rusty cot beneath the sodden, smelly clothes hanging on the clothes line, I could hear the waves of my old laughter.
It was the laughter of a stupid girl who had the arrogance of having found her man.
Later, much later, after Unni and Kanna were born, I had met Lily again. By then several other women had streamed into Madhav’s life – a young actress, a lady politician, a writer, a television anchor and, finally, a dancer – and I had come to realise that jealousy was indeed irrelevant.
“I am feeling so sad for you,” Lily had sympathised.
“Why on earth?” I had retorted, stung by false pride.
“Tulsi, you don’t deserve so much punishment.”
The sincerity in her voice had made me weak.
“I knew that this would happen,” she continued.
“Do you remember the day I came to your home? After asking me to leave, Madhav left the house himself, two hours or so later...? Perhaps you’ve forgotten, Tulsi.”
“He had come to my hotel room. He fell at my feet and begged for forgiveness. He washed my feet with his tears.”
Lily’s words had pierced my heart like sharp iron nails.
“He made love to me,” she went on. “Then he called you from the phone in my room. I was half asleep when I heard him ask, ‘Are you all right, Tulsi?’ I threw him out of my life that day.”
She wiped her tears.
“What can be done? No one can hate him...He is simply irresistible.”
“Thank you for the information.”
“Be bold,” she said. “Please do not hesitate to ask for help...”
I had struggled hard to maintain my dignity before her. The dignity of a doormat. She affectionately patted the cheeks of Kanna, who was perched on my hip. I was proud of myself for not breaking down in front of her. I felt the same pride when I secured a place for myself in Vrindavan’s annadanam queue for the first time, and again when I was summoned at night by a priest of the Rangji temple two days after that.
The room that I was summoned to was in a quarter meant for priests. The man moistened his thick lips repeatedly as he approached me.
“Tulsi, you are such a fine girl. I do not like the idea of you living amidst all these tonsured women...You can stay in my home, if you wish. That means with all the facilities. See, my wife is old. As for me, I am not ageing at all...I still have enough youth to satisfy a woman like you...”
His red satin dhoti, the saffron shawl covering his upper body, the long tilak on his forehead, those thick lips with the snake-like tongue flicking in and out – all of these provoked utter revulsion in me. He was fondling himself as he talked to me. I felt like vomiting. Yet, I also felt a cruel sense of satisfaction. When he touched me, I sincerely wanted to oblige him. But my body had turned to stone.
“You are pretty,” he muttered, licking his lips again.
I started laughing.
“Why are you laughing?”
“Shouldn’t women laugh?” I asked him. “Don’t you know that you have to make a woman laugh before you fuck her?”
I had laughed again when he undressed himself. On seeing his flat nose, his protruding tummy and shrivelled organ, I had laughed without stopping.
“Why are you laughing like this? Are you mocking this old man?” He was upset.
“Do not get angry,” I told him gently. “You can rape me if you want.”
Fed up, the old man had let me go. I too was bitterly frustrated.
My body was full of poison. Love’s poison. I did not desire to die. I wanted to survive. To live on, like a horrendous, festering wound. Those who saw me ought to feel this pain. Like Madhav’s love, I too should corrode everything around me.
When the midnight puja bells of the Madan Mohan temple rang out, I stretched out on the iron cot in the Maighar. I was curious about Madhav. Had he suffered a heart attack? Madhav’s heart, I thought facetiously. Madhav, who could corrode lips while kissing. As I lay thinking, Ramakrishna Pandit called my name from outside: “Tulsi mai!”
My heart stopped beating for a moment. I was afraid that he had come to give me some news of Madhav. My hatred for Madhav was all-consuming. I wished to smash him into smithereens. And yet I also wished that he would live on. I wanted his beating heart – so that I could corrode it myself. I stepped out of the room. It was a moonlit night. In the dim light, I saw Madhav in the distance. Wrapped in his Kashmiri shawl, he was waiting by Ramakrishna Pandit’s side. I was enraged.
The pandit stepped forward, the beam from his torch lighting the way.
“He walked out from the hospital without permission, Tulsi mai. It seems he has something to say to you. He will leave soon after that.”
I stood motionless. I watched Madhav’s face as if through a sleepy haze. He had greyed a bit. Lost some hair. Grown a beard. The grey strands gleamed silver in the moonlight, as did the long lashes that framed his large eyes. I stared at Madhav as if he was a stranger. He hobbled towards me, one side of his body drooping. With great effort, he knelt on the ground.
Before I realised what was happening, he put his lips, moist and warm, on my feet.
My filthy, scarred, calloused feet. I stepped back as if burned. Madhav toppled over, losing balance.
I ran back to my room and fell on to the iron cot, struggling for breath.
From the grimy walls surrounding me, numerous Krishnas in different postures gazed soulfully at me. I went mad. Someone played the flute right in my ears without stopping. I felt like running wildly through the streets, stark naked.
“A flute note by the riverside! Ah, my shattered heart, what is the relevance of recognition now?”
But my legs did not move. I curled up on that iron cot, sheltering in its cold, breathing heavily. My feet felt heavy. It was as if Madhav’s lips had fused on to them. I rubbed one foot against the other, hoping to obliterate his touch. I did not succeed. I even tried briskly rubbing an old rag on my feet. Finally, I went to the bathroom and, taking water from the dirty, paan-stained, phlegm-soiled washbasin, washed my feet again and again. It was useless. The flesh and the bones had both corroded away. He still had the capacity to dissolve me.
Excerpted with permission from The Poison of Love, KR Meera, translated from the Malayalam by Ministhy S, Hamish Hamilton.