Silence on a tropical island is the relentless sound of water. The waves, like the sound of your own breathing, never leave you. For a fortnight now, the gurgle and thunder of clouds has drowned out the waves. Rains drum on the roof and skid over the edge, losing themselves in splashes. Simmer, whip, thrum and slip. The sun is dead, they tell you.
Seeded in the sounds is an elemental silence. The quietness of mist and the stillness of ice.
The newly-married Girija Prasad and Chanda Devi have resigned to their fate – strangers in a bedroom damp with desire and flooded with incipient dreams. And Girija Prasad dreams furiously these days. For the rains are conducive to fantasies, an unscientific truth.
One night, when the downpour suddenly stops, it wakes him up. His ears had adjusted to the tropical cacophony like a spouse to a snoring partner. Rising from a wet dream, he wonders what happened. Who left the room?
He peeps down from his queen-sized bed to Chanda Devi’s rustic mattress on the floor, where she sleeps facing the open window instead of him. Aroused, he gazes at the curves of her silhouette in the darkness. When the two of them were united for several births by walking around the sacred fire seven times during their wedding ceremony, she followed his footsteps meekly, firm in her conviction that destiny had brought them together once again in a new avatar. Yet in this avatar, he would have to find a place in her heart once again. “Until then,” she informed him on the first night, “I will make my bed on the ground.”
She’s wide awake, distraught because of the accusatory cries emanating from the other side. It is the ghost of a goat. The ghost escaped countless realms to come wander on their roof. And now its restless hooves have descended to stand under the open window, filling the room and her conscience with guilt.
“Can you hear it?” she asks. She can feel his eyes on her back. “Hear what?”
“The goat bleating outside.”
His forlorn erection withers away. He’s alert now to Chanda Devi and the predicament she poses.
“There’s no goat roaming in our house,” he replies in exasperation. She sits up. The bleating has grown louder, as if to tell her to convey to her dreamy husband, “You took away my life, but you can’t take away my afterlife, you sinful meat-eater!”
“It’s just outside our window,” she tells him. “Does it scare you?”
“Are you threatened by this goat?”
“Then perhaps you could ignore it and go back to sleep.” He meant to say “should” and not “could”, but he doesn’t have the courage to be stern. His wife, he has realised, doesn’t respond well to dialectics or coercion. In fact, she doesn’t respond well to most things. If only she were less attractive, he could have ignored her and gone back to sleep.
“How can you sleep?” she asks. “You hacked the innocent creature, minced its flesh, deep fried it with onions and garlic, then ate it. And you left its restless soul to haunt our house!”
If the souls of all the various kinds of animals he had consumed returned to haunt him, his home would be a zoo and barn combined, leaving no space to move, let alone sleep. But mild-mannered Girija Prasad cannot say that. Two months into his marriage and he’s resigned to his wife’s fecund imagination. It is a wilful act of hope, attributing her behaviour to her imagination and not some mental illness. For the sake of his unborn children and the decades they have to endure together, he announces, “If it helps you sleep, I will stop eating meat.”
That’s how carnivorous Girija Prasad turns vegetarian, much to his wife’s and his own surprise. For the sake of a few hours of rest, he says goodbye to scrambled eggs, mutton biryani and beefsteaks forever.
At the first hint of sunrise, she leaves her bed. She enters the kitchen to prepare an elaborate breakfast. There is new life in her movements and a smile lurking in her silence. Now that the killings have stopped, it’s time to stretch out a white flag in the shape of aloo parathas. Two hours later, she serves them to him and asks, “How are they?”
Girija Prasad can’t help but feel unsettled, and for all the wrong reasons. The sun is finally out. His wife, who has cooked him breakfast for the first time, has been bold enough to place a napkin on his lap, brushing past his shoulders, spilling her warm breath on his skin. He craves the comfort of grease mixed with flesh, but he can’t find it on his plate.
“How are they?” she asks him again. “Who?” he asks, disoriented.
She smiles and pours him a second cup of tea.
Chanda Devi, the clairvoyant one. She feels for ghosts and enjoys the laconic company of trees. She can sense them, his unexpressed cravings. But she knows he is better off giving up flesh. The kingdom of flesh is as ephemeral as it is unreliable, especially when compared to the kingdom of plants. Chanda Devi has seen it all, even the rivers of blood that will drain out of her body one day. It makes her obstinate, this knowledge. It makes her a demanding wife.
Excerpted with permission from Latitudes of Longing: A Novel, Shubhangi Swarup, HarperCollins India.