Cover

Sandalwood

Tejaswini Apte Rahm | Updated on January 19, 2018
Life goes on: I rode a bus to my old home and stood at a discreet distance across the road, watching the children get into the school bus

Life goes on: I rode a bus to my old home and stood at a discreet distance across the road, watching the children get into the school bus   -  Shutterstock

Window to the old world: Then came a day when I was so restless, I found myself making an enormous lasagne

Window to the old world: Then came a day when I was so restless, I found myself making an enormous lasagne   -  Shutterstock

Tejaswini Apte-Rahm

Tejaswini Apte-Rahm

So I accepted the situation my husband presented to me: after 17 years of marriage, years in which I had stayed home in London to look after the children, he had discovered that he was homosexual. The timing couldn’t have been better for everyone concerned. And if my husband had been a devious sort of person, I would even have called it manipulative: because his homosexual partner, the one who was to replace me in my own home, was a career man in a smart suit. He worked long hours. And so, how fortunate it was that the work of bringing up the children had already been done by me — Nidhi was 16 and Pratik was 14. All they needed now, really, was for someone to feed them, and pay their fees, and not disturb the harmony of their social lives. The first of these things — the feeding — that imposter could do. I suppose I had better give him a name. Chandan is his name. Though Chandan worked full-time, my husband told me, I mustn’t worry about the kids. Chandan cooked beautifully, had an eye for interiors, a taste for jazz, and an insistence on dust-free neatness. Thus he would take over my duties smoothly; in effect, he would slip right into my skin at home and in bed. My husband didn’t talk about the bed, of course, that was my own insertion.

It’s not like I gave in easily. It’s just that my husband told me every day, over six months, that my intransigence was ruining everyone’s life. The children, he said, were living with a sword hanging over their heads (“You’ve already told them about this?” I gasped, horrified. “No, but I’m tempted to expose you to them,” he said, “for being so selfish”), he and his lover were in limbo (“Why can’t you just have an affair with him,” I pleaded, “why do you have to bring him into this house?” “How dare you demean my love for him in that way,” he’d responded), and, he said, my own life was on hold till this situation could be resolved.

“What life of my own,” I demanded, weeping, “I have given my entire life to looking after our family and home.”

“That’s not my fault,” he said, “I had told you right at the beginning, when we arrived from India, to cultivate your own interests, make some friends, but no. You insisted on being a boring housewife with no personality, no taste, no hobbies, but for your obsessive interest in your husband and children. And where has it gotten you? I’ve moved on, I’ve finally discovered who I really am. The children have moved on, you merely irritate them with your suffocating questions about what they’ve eaten and which friend they are chatting online with. Don’t hold all of us back,” he said, “Do the right thing and step back, find your own place in the world.”

In short, six months of verbal battering compressed me into a reduced person, unsure of myself, not trusting my own wishes, and, above all, not wanting to make things worse for my children by creating a scene.

“I’m giving you monthly maintenance only for yourself,” my husband told me, when it came down to discussing the details of the separation. “For the children there will be the least disruption if they continue with me, in their current school.”

“Why wouldn’t they go to their current school if they lived with me,” I’d asked — for all his blustering talk, I’d held on to the hope, till the end, that they would come with me.

“Because,” he said with avuncular patience, “if they lived with you they would have to go to a cheaper school.”

“Then include the fees in the maintenance,” I said, “and as for the rest, the children and I will manage.”

“Will you,” he said, tight-lipped. “You’d better talk to Nidhi then.”

So I did. But Nidhi said, “Mamma, Pratik and I want to stay here. We anyway hardly see you during the week. I don’t want to leave my room. Papa says if we live with you it will be in a small two-bedroom flat. How can I call my friends there? Where will I put my piano? Pratik feels the same.”

I admired my daughter then. She’ll go far in this world.

So it was that I moved into a small, bare flat. It was only a short bus-ride away, but it was made clear by my husband that I ought to let everyone get on with their lives and not try to insinuate myself among them. Give it at least a year, he said, in his most reasonable voice. A clean, sharp break for the children. Don’t ruin things for them.

I stuck to my daily morning schedule. I woke up at 6 am. I rode a bus to my old home and stood at a discreet distance across the road, watching the children get into the school bus. The first time I did that, Pratik waved. Nidhi looked furtively at me and nodded. Then she pulled at his arm and glanced at her friends to see if they had noticed the strange staring woman across the street. The next day I didn’t wave. But I knew that they knew I was there.

I had no job and no experience of working. The tattered half-life I led was one in which minutes seemed like hours, and an hour simply something invented to drive me to insanity. After the bus left, all semblance of routine disintegrated. But for the school bus, I wouldn’t have left my bed. For weeks, breakfast before the bus was my only meal. Lunchtime would find me wandering the local park with a carton of orange juice in my hand to stave off thirst. By dinner time I was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and sobbing. What I did in the intervening hours I cannot say. Seventeen years had gone, gone at the first whiff of sandalwood, the damned whiff of Chandan who was now filling my husband’s life with his odious fragrance. Once only, on a weekend, I positioned myself near the house to see what they were all up to, this new family. And I saw them going off to some lunch party — new friends, no doubt — piling happy and eager into the Pajero, carrying a magnificent iced cake made by, who else, Chandan.

I never spied on them again.

That is, till I discovered that I still had the keys to the house buried in my purse.

I entered the house mid-morning on a Monday. All was safely silent. I did a sort of inspection tour. There were plump, new silk cushions on the sofa, making the place look rather opulent. In the kitchen, Chandan had moved my prized knife set from its place near the hob. It now sparkled in a sunny spot by the window, next to a new pot of violets, making it look a bit like a magazine photograph. I opened the fridge. Strawberry milk for Pratik, raisin bread for Nidhi, low-cholesterol margarine for my husband, all was in order as it should be. Then upstairs to the bedroom. I expected my breath to catch when I went in there. But strangely, it didn’t. It’s not like we’d been active in that department lately. I only cared for my home. I wanted it back, desperately. I want my things to be on my dressing table, I thought, as I stared down at the male colognes and hairbrush near the gnarled mark on the wood that looked like a stack of pancakes. I want to cook for my children, I thought, staring at the tired face in the mirror.

When I left, I had a plan.

The next day, and the next, and the next, I escaped my dreary flat, and hung out at home. Why not? For at least a few hours a day, I went back to my normal life and activities. I tidied up the children’s rooms upstairs. I did a bit of ironing, taking care not to iron anything that belonged to Chandan. Some dusting. Useful things that nobody would notice. I watched television, made myself some light lunch. Chandan appeared to be a good housekeeper. But this house was none of his business. It was mine. Each day, after a short nap on the sofa, where I lay with one of our old novels from the bookshelf, I left the house at precisely 3 pm. And I made sure that everything was just as I’d found it.

But I started wondering what would happen if I made the kids a snack before I left. I missed feeding them. So I made some cheese toasties and put them on the kitchen island where the children always ate perched on high stools.

Then I hid. I went into the store cupboard by the back door and peeped out. I had an excellent view of half the kitchen. Right on time I heard the front door open and my children came into the kitchen. Pratik looked warily about him, but then sat and ate. Nidhi looked at the cheese toasties, felt them with her finger, realised they were still warm, walked to the window and stared out. She appeared to be thinking. Then she walked back to the toasties and began to eat after dousing them in ketchup. “Didi,” began Pratik. “Shut up,” she said. As the food disappeared into their mouths I felt as if a small black weight in my stomach was lifting. The next day I was in my element. I stitched on missing buttons of shirts and trousers, I sorted socks into pairs, I tidied Nidhi’s wardrobe and sorted out Pratik’s craft box. I vacuumed the top floor one day and the lower floor the next. And every day I prepared an after-school snack for my children and watched them eat it.

I began to find it odd, though, that they never talked about me. So just for one day I decided to skip the snack and watch for signs of distress. Some sign, any sign. But that day they simply looked at the empty kitchen island, helped themselves to some cookies, and went upstairs. I realised then how much they simply wanted a lack of disruption. That’s all that these children wanted. They didn’t want me or need me. I was frightened at how little I meant to anyone.

As the days passed, and it became clear that the new family was doing just fine with or without my contributions to the housekeeping, I began to feel like a disembodied spirit, cravenly wandering about the empty house, a sneaky intruding presence, a ghost fixer of snacks. This house was mine and yet not mine.

Then came a day when I was so restless, I found myself making an enormous lasagne. I moved through my kitchen — with something remotely akin to joy, I suppose — mincing, chopping, baking, agitation falling away from me in veils. As a cheesy aroma wafted out from the oven, I began making some pea soup, never once considering what I would do with all this food. In my mind I had even started on a cherry cake for dessert. And I stopped myself just as it occurred to me that I was going to have to lug the lasagne back to my flat. In frustration at having brought myself to a screeching halt, I began cleaning the kitchen. I scrubbed it to a state of divine glitter.

And then, instead of taking to the sofa, I fell onto the soft, duvet-covered bed in the guest bedroom and collapsed into sleep. I hadn’t slept so deeply in months. And I had a dream: that the room had turned dark; and that there was a dark human shape sitting at the foot of the bed. I woke with a gasp in my throat — and found that it was indeed dark. To my horror, I could hear the faint clink of cutlery and glass. The dim red glow of a digital clock on the wall showed 8 pm. My heart began banging against the walls of my chest, as if it would leap out and escape in terror, leaving me to my own devices.

I crept to the door, crouching low like a rat or some such vermin. I opened the door a crack. And I saw them all sitting around the table, ensconced in the yellow glow of the ceiling lamp. Eating dinner. To my amazement, the lasagne was on the table. They were eating it. Apparently, Brij and the children had no idea that they were eating the same lasagne I had made every other week for 17 years. A piece of paper crinkled in my pocket. I fished it out. It was a note: “Don’t make dinner again. I like cooking.”

Tejaswini Apte-Rahm ’s first short story collection 'These Circuses that Sweep Through the Landscapes' is forthcoming from Aleph later this year

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

Published on January 22, 2016
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor