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BLink turns 5

The gift

Dharini Bhaskar | Updated on January 18, 2019

As Jay slept by my side, I played a game of spot-the-difference — life as I had envisioned it at the age of 20, and life as it was at present. Both oddly consistent, mirror images of one another.

So, there I was with everything I had wanted: A job that afforded the occasional extravagance, a marriage that endured, a daughter...

I turned to Jay, nudged his body. Wake up, Jay, wake up. Then, another nudge. I love you. Though I wasn’t sure why I said it — maybe in an attempt to taste the words, it has been so long since I had known their sweetness. The last time I had offered Jay those syllables — when had it been? — a day before Tara’s birth, that’s for certain, when he had postponed a business trip to pace up and down a hospital corridor. Forty-eight hours later, after emailing photographs of his tightly swaddled daughter — she takes after her Papa, he had proclaimed to the nurse — he left for England for 30 days, placing a newborn in my charge.

After that, there had been no time for proclamations of love. The business of baby-tending, of feeding and burping and diaper changing, had transformed me from a creature of occasional sentiment to one yo-yoing between two modes of being — craving sleep/at last, sleeping. Besides, on the rare occasion that I was returned to myself, annoyance superseded absolute fatigue — annoyance at being curtailed within a house, annoyance at a husband who wasn’t.

After the third year, when the days started acquiring a kind of radiance, owing to regular hours of slumber and a reclaimed vocation, I tried reminding myself of the early months with Jay — the brief courtship, the well-meaning proposal, the evening after when he had asked if I’d like to honeymoon in Cambodia. I attempted recollecting the texture of his voice at that moment, the low pitch, that quiver of joy — but already it was escaping like sand too tightly clenched.

It was then that I sensed that I had lost the lightwood of memory with which to stoke our association.

I love you, I repeated, this time not to savour words but to memory-build. Jay flopped, yanked at the duvet, pulled it over his head.

Did you hear me, Jay?

Not tonight, Sri.

We didn’t travel to Cambodia, after all. Jay got waylaid by deadlines, I got ambushed by unforgiving clients, and, since we were still young, it was easy to arrive at a bluff-compromise — Cambodia, later.

Sometimes, in those early months of marriage, when Jay happened to be in town, he’d remind me of the honeymoon we had never had, then rattle off the names of the Cambodian cities we could visit. But before we could re-pin our professional commitments around a five-day getaway, Tara happened, and the imminence of parenthood, the approaching liabilities, stunned us into nine months of workaholism.

Jay, I prodded the duvet. Jay, we should go to Cambodia.

Hm, he responded.

Let’s go next week, Jay. What’s stopping us?

Busy, Sri. You know.

I’m busy, too. But I’ll make the time.

I can’t, Sri. Later.

There it was.

Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to claim the moments that could have been, but that we had mislaid — when? — while chasing life and achievement. I got out of bed, grabbed my phone and impulsively booked a four-day retreat. Tara would be cosseted by a doting grandmother, Jay would inhabit the UK or Japan or some other distant nation with the sheen of money, the clients would learn to accommodate my non-attendance, even the houseplants, undemanding aspidistras, would survive.

The next morning, I informed Jay that I’d be travelling in a bit. Where to, he asked as he read the papers. I felt a pang of remorse. There were things that we were meant to do as one. But, quickly, I smothered all misgivings...

There’d be another time to yoke our lives together.

Cambodia, I said frostily.

I regretted the quality of my response. I worried that Jay would perceive my coolness, grieve... yet it pleased me to think he’d grieve.

Nice.

Yes?

Yeah, take pictures.

A week later, after calming the frayed nerves of clients, and bundling up Tara’s favourite books, and dispatching stern warnings to my mother, who was already mollycoddling her approving grandchild, I found myself in Battambang, Cambodia, for a honeymoon for one.

I don’t know why I chose Battambang as my destination. Maybe because it seemed out of the way, a seven-hour, six-dollar rickety bus ride from a gridlocked capital. Maybe because it promised picture-book decay — crumbling French villas, colonial hotels. Or, maybe, quite simply because its name made me laugh, feel reckless.

It was the name, of course. I rented a bicycle, circled a guest house, watched the sky grow a thin, black scab. “What is that?” I asked a tuk-tuk driver. “Bats,” he informed me, “hundreds.”

At that point, I know I tried calling Jay — guess what I saw, I wanted to announce, bats in bow ties! But when I reached his voicemail, I grew self-conscious — evidently, three years of Tara-speak had rendered talk impossible without Disney motifs.

Hey there, I said, very adult, then disconnected, and called Tara instead. Stuffed with grandma’s food, she giggled at my dippy verbal sketches — but then, when sated, Tara smiled at everything, the world a succession of savoury delights. At such times, she could gobble my voice.

Suddenly, I missed her laughter.

I had another day in town — except, now, tugged as I was by recollections of Tara’s gurgles, my survival depended on trailing verbs, on motion. The next morning, I braced myself for a destination-less ride in a norri — a bamboo train that dispensed with the stuffy formality of roofs and walls, and came, instead, with a plinth-on-wheels powered by a rusty generator. Soon, I was speeding down a ruler-straight track.

After that, my task was to duck each time the zipping norri came perilously close to low-hanging branches and bramble — the manoeuvrings becoming progressively more complex as the morning’s genteel rain made way for fat, stinging drops.

I got off the norri when it stopped near a tall tree. I waited under its wide-open branches while the driver wandered off for a fifteen-minute siesta or a chat with a girlfriend or something tender, a shared meal — how odd for me to covet a common repast.

It’s then that I noticed the Cambodian boy, gangly, no older than 25, standing with me under the tree. But what I especially remember are his fingers, long and rain-damp. They’ve always absorbed me, fingers. It’s what I must’ve noticed first in Jay. Not his hair or conch-shell ears but his fingers, how they tap-tap-tapped against his knees when he heard a song — was that what had made me approach him? Likely. And what then? Had I offered to take him home? Perhaps. I know we exchanged business cards.

I watched the boy as he squatted, tugged at shoots of grass, separated the most limber, counted them, six. I watched as he looped them at one end, a firm shroud-knot, then braided them as he would have a daughter’s hair. I watched as the pigtailed strands came together, became a tiny hoop, another knot securing them.

The boy nodded, his creation meeting with his approval, and slipped it into his pocket. Then, slowly, he hoisted himself up, rearranged his hair so it parted in the middle. He took two steps, bold, and stood before me.

If I was surprised, I didn’t reveal it. If he was skittish, he didn’t make it known. He only smiled. Then, hesitantly, he dug into his pocket and produced it, the thing he had made with bare hands, the ring of coiled grass.

“For you, lady.”

It’s all he said to me. I took his gift, slipped it on. It fit, snug, around my thumb. Thank you, I wanted to say. I didn’t.

I had thanked Jay.

Six months together, and we had gone to a shop, the two of us, skipping lunch, perfectly alert to what was coming. Jay led me to a counter, waved his hand, choose anything.

There was no time for vacillation, for a yes, a no, a maybe. I had 10 minutes to reach a decision, I picked a ring in half the time, the first that seemed inexpensive, that fit. I heard the swipe of a credit card. I heard the shimmer in Jay’s voice, we did it. I heard our shoes kicking dust as we sprinted back to a taxi.

It looks great.

I know.Jay...

Yeah?

Thank you.

For what?

I don’t know. Just.

No, I’m being unfair. That day, I had been in love, madly so. I called friends, Ma, former colleagues, lied that I’d been surprised, promised that I’d send wedding invitations... but, somehow, the afternoon’s joy refused to stick. It dissipated, became past.

By the stalled norri, I removed the hoop of tender grass, slid it over my wedding ring. The old eclipsed. Then I looked around.Hello?

I wished to know the Cambodian boy’s name, ask after his offering — why, how come, to what end — but already he had walked away beyond the horizon.

In that mood, I suspect, I would have crossed the nation’s last frontier to find him... but the driver was back, his afternoon of mundane happinesses behind him. It was time to ascend the norri.

Once more, the train hurtled, but now, accustomed to it, I hunched easy. Gently, I twirled the meadow ring. For a while I wondered if it was no more than a tourist giveaway. If this boy with nimble fingers waited each morning. If he wove a ring of grass for every wayfarer. If he mouthed the same set of words,for you, lady.

And, then, I realised, it didn’t matter. I didn’t care if there were sightseers winning clone words and accessories. The exclusivity of the act didn’t concern me.

What mattered instead was this. That it had rained. That, on this day, a boy had foraged for blades of grass. That he had crafted, with quick fingers, a souvenir for the body. That he had shaped a moment that would lend itself to nostalgia.

I wear his ring.

I wear it past the giddy norri, past Cambodia, all the way home.

I wear it when Jay, woozy with sleep, opens the door — hey there — his fingers running over my own, discerning nothing out of the way, nothing.

And I wear it as Tara, arms outstretched, wide enough to contain a world, sprints towards me.

Tonight, I wish for her not a love that stays...

but one that in its retreat doesn’t leave her empty-handed.

 

Dharini Bhaskar’s debut novel These, Our Bodies Possessed by Light will be published by Hachette

Published on January 18, 2019

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