The bitten lip
We’re sitting in his sister’s room on the ground floor, arms entwined, kissing passionately. The sister is not around, of course. She is long gone, having married at the ‘right age’. His parents are not around either because they are at the neighbours’, discussing the collapse of human civilisation over cups of cardamom tea. Encouraged by their well-timed absence, we are making out like teenagers. It’s funny, almost embarrassing – a grown man and woman, both in their late 30s yet entirely untouched by the chemistry of lust, slowly discovering what intimacy with an unrelated human feels like.
He interrupts our snog session to do something filmy. He picks up an apple chunk from the tray and places it between my lips, cautioning me not to gobble it whole. “What do I do then?” I ask, puzzled. He draws in closer and then I understand. Promptly I close my eyes, awaiting the sensation of his mouth meeting mine in a moment of pure, unbridled ecstasy.
But, his plan misfires. In his enthusiasm, he misses the fruit and crash-lands on my lower lip instead, his teeth crunching it so loud I feel the explosion in my ears.
Aargh! Fuck you, moron!
The lip is bleeding. I’m screaming. He is mortified. He collapses into a heap of sorrys. “I’m so sorry!” he goes. “Sorry sorry sorry sorry!”
I’m in too much pain to speak, so I gesticulate in the general direction of the kitchen. Fortunately, he understands.
“Oh yes yes yes, let me get you some ice. We need ice. Let me get ice. Yes yes, wait, one second, just a second.”
But it turns out the fridge has no ice at all – he used it all up and forgot to refill the trays.
Desperate, he rummages through the freezer compartment – is there anything else we can use? Oh, there is a box of chopped mangoes that his mother has saved up for the winter.
He brings it to me. “Can you use this?” he asks apologetically. “We don’t have ice but this is chilled. You can hold it against your lip.”
I glare at him before grabbing the box. My lip has swollen to twice its size. The assault has dislodged a thick patch of skin, the muscles underneath red and leaking.
“How are you feeling?” he asks anxiously, like a doctor inquiring of a patient.
“My mouth is having a stroke,” I tell him, sounding really strange since I’m speaking with my lips apart. He looks stricken. A part of me is happy at his misery. I know he didn’t hurt me on purpose but my brain is pain-addled. I’m in no mood to euphemize my feelings.
He sits down next to me, wringing his hands, eyes scanning the floor. If we were ostriches, he’d have stuck his head in the sand by now.
I hold the box against my lip for what feels like a century. It is a poor surrogate for ice. Water condenses on the surface every few seconds, so it must be wiped off before it can drip on my clothes. I wipe, press, wipe, press, wipe, press. He stares at me blankly, then looks out the window, humiliated out of his wits. We sit there wordlessly till I feel better enough to leave.
He spends the night wide awake, wondering how to make this up to me. I spend mine pondering if my mother’s taunts about missing the ‘right age’ had some merit after all.
I have acquired a new habit in lockdown. I lie in bed for long hours, looking at old photos. I was never one for nostalgia but perhaps living in the midst of constant precarity makes one want to reach out for proof of endurance.
So, I may be 38 and declining now but in this album I’m a shiny-faced new-born. Look at me walk at eleven months! I was unstable then, just as I am now, but at least that waddle was cute. And look, here I am at six, right leg in a crutch, winning an elocution trophy in the first school I attended (there would be half a dozen more). I’d narrated the fable of the hare and the tortoise in one breath, and when it was time to pronounce the moral of the story, I’d amped up my volume as advised by Miss Dubois, to loudly declare, “Remember, my friends: Slow and steady wins the race!” Everyone had applauded. Even Daddy had smiled.
Slow, I have always been. Steady I’ve spent the other half of my life trying to become.
Then there is this photo here, of Annie and me on a roller coaster in Florida. Annie is screaming with her eyes closed, but she is only mock-scared. I, to her left, am looking wide-eyed and petrified. How did I even agree to get on an amusement ride? This is the best thing about childhood – you’re yet to define yourself, doubt yourself, demarcate yourself. You tag along because you can’t muster the will to refuse in capital letters the way you do now as an adult, saying no no no to everything remotely capable of delivering you from your misery.
Oh, how have I never seen this picture? This is Annie, Mum and me on our trip to India! Daddy was posted as the director of an Alliance Française there. It was a surreal town where he lived, small but vibrant, a favourite with White tourists like ourselves. Everywhere I went, there were visitors trying to become Indian. They spoke bits of the local dialect, purchased handloom wraparounds, wore little bindis and sought out regional food everywhere, albeit bastardized to suit their palate. “No chilli, please!” they would request the wait staff. I would snigger. I was sixteen then, in that phase of teenage angst where you hate everything and everyone. I wanted to run away and return home, but when I did get back home a couple of weeks later, I realized I didn’t want to be there either. I did not know it then, but this sentiment of belonging nowhere was to become my second skin for life.
My favourite photo of all time is this one – of me sitting on a bench at land’s end in Cape Town, staring out at where the oceans meet. There were five of us in that group – two couples and an outlier – and the outlier me decided to bail on sight-seeing plans. I told the others I wanted a break and rushed to plonk myself on that bench before anybody else could get there. I sat there for hours, feasting on the tide like a human desert, filling my heart with the sea. I did not realize when Annie’s boyfriend, that photographer, sneaked up behind me and captured this shot. I was annoyed with him then for breaking my reverie. Now I’m grateful.
There are hundreds more photos in the attic – flashes of the years past, preservations of girlhood and youth, evidence of robust health and unblemished happiness. I revel in them all day, back as I am at my parents’ place, for the world is closed until further notice and the pandemic has robbed me of all pretence of busy-ness. Cocooned alone in my room, under a roof built fifty years ago by two people I was born to disappoint, I watch our family come to life in two dimensions, the photos sometimes emanating the scents of talcum powder or home-baked biscuits, at other times making me wish my bones had held me in stronger stead, so I could’ve at least attempted to give back all that I received.
A gift for the troll
Trolls like to call us “rice bags” on Twitter – we, whose ancestors resorted to religious conversion in order to escape the fate of cleaning manholes their whole lives.
It is said that when the first missionaries arrived, cloaked in sympathy, they baited our great grandfathers each with five bags of rice. They were confident that the latter would accept the one-time indignity of conversion if it meant saving their future generations from spending their lives submerged in human waste. The “profession” of my forefathers – if it can be called that – was never a choice for them but a compulsion of birth. So, apparently, five bags of rice was all it took for them to surrender their own religion and embrace that of their oppressors.
This is why the joke is on the trolls. They think “rice bag” is a brilliant, innovative insult. They are incensed when we refuse to take offence. It doesn’t occur to them to imagine the extent of atrocity that must have prompted an entire community of untouchables to surrender their faith for some grain!
The man I’m meeting over coffee today is one such troll. I’ve made the mistake of turning up for our date without conducting my customary procedures of due diligence on social media. I’m discovering now, while looking him up on Twitter, that he is quite the template. It starts with his bio: “World-class scientist yet a proud nationalist”. It makes me chuckle. Why do these new-age patriots feel the two are mutually exclusive?
Then comes his timeline – a confection of majoritarianism, conspiracy theories, and a general disdain for everything fair and equitable. He abhors vocal women and takes special interest in methods of controlling them. He appears to use the terms “libturd” and “feminazi” more often than real words.
This is no less than a cosmic warning. Should I leave right away?
Too late now. He’s arrived. He’s sauntering into the café with something my sister calls ‘swag’.
We shake hands. “Nice outfit!” he says, unconvincing despite a wide smile. We settle down and kick off the small talk.
I realise he likes to ask questions but is not particularly a fan of answers. Maybe he just likes the sound of his voice. When I start to respond, his eyes wander. He checks out the ceiling, then the cashier, then the guests at other tables. Shifts constantly in his chair. Never looks at me for ten seconds straight. Keeps hands firmly under the table till the food arrives.
Speaking of food, I’m rather surprised at his order. He looks like he’s starved himself all day. How else does one demolish an entire lobster at 6 pm?
“Now, you are a real feminist,” he says between morsels. “Offering to pay on the first date – that’s unusual!”
“Why?” I’m amused. “You’ve never been on a first date paid for by a woman?”
“Nope” he replies, tearing at the lobster’s tail. “Leeches, most of them. Not you though, you’re different. Hashtag #notallwomen! Hehehe!”
I perform the remarkable feat of simultaneously smiling and biting my tongue.
He takes a break from gluttony to pick up his phone. Scrolls intently, then feverishly types something. I pick up mine in turn, almost reflexively, and head straight to his Twitter profile, curious to check out his latest nugget of wisdom. He’s retweeted a xenophobic rant – something about how reservation in government institutes for protected groups like ours is evidence that the “rice bags” wouldn’t get anywhere on merit.
My resolve to sit through the meeting lapses.
“I’ll be back,” I tell him, picking up my handbag and motioning to the loo. He nods, too mesmerised by Twitter and the lobster to notice I’ve packed up my affairs.
I walk off in the direction opposite to the loo, out of the café. He is still bent over his phone. I enter a neighbouring provision store first for an urgent errand, then summon a cab to head home.
I may have skimped on the cheque like a leech, but hey, at least I left him a parting gift. A sack of the finest long-grained rice on the trunk of his car, neatly ribboned, with a small card that reads, rather eloquently, “From a sack of rice to a bag of shit, with my best compliments”.
How to survive a pandemic
It isn’t all that hard. In my native tongue, we call it “bandaging the stomach” – tying it up so tight you can’t feel hunger.
But let’s not be dramatic. I haven’t slipped into poverty yet. The only reason I’m saying all this is because of the quicksand of uncertainty we’re living in, where each day comes prepared to swallow us whole, sparing us only because it’s no match for the size of fight in our bones. Resilience is glamorous but exhausting. You may look pretty sticking your neck out and above the forces of doom, but at some point you’re going to tire. That’s why it helps to have a manual. In case you start feeling like a sheet of popped bubble wrap, you must know there are ways to survive a pandemic that do not involve prostrating before capitalism every morning.
If you can’t find work, stop fretting. Put your feet up till they stop aching. And listen up.
See, the biggest drain on a middle-class person’s savings is fancy food. Little muffins dressed up like Cleopatra and garnished with hype. These things seduce you into squandering your pension fund. Patisseries are cousins of casinos. Resist their lure. Try to think of cupcakes as a confection of toxins – gluten, sugar, calories. Teach yourself to shun them. It’s all about associations and imagery.
Then, there is the black hole of retail therapy. Did you know that Jeff Bezos makes $3,715 per second of his existence? How do you think he does that? By compelling us to buy such marvels as fairness cream for armpits and exfoliating scrubs for butts. Consumerism is basically a conspiracy aimed at the enrichment of millionaires at our expense. If we do not reject it, we’re going to perish under the weight of cartons.
So, repeat after me: do not buy overrated goop. Even if it comes garnished with stardust.
The next department in line for reform is social media. Open your Instagram account and examine the first twenty posts on your timeline. Count how many of them announce some form of tangible acquisition – house, car, iPad, bunny-shaped earmuffs. Then, of the remaining ones, count how many are exhibits of intangible acquisition – you splayed out in sand, you bare-back in an infinity pool, you hanging from a plane. Manifestations of paradise, no doubt, but when times are dire, it might be a good idea to abandon the horse-and-pony show. Take inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi’s legendary trio of monkeys – close your eyes, ears and mouth to the razzmatazz. Be basic. Show dopamine the middle finger.
I’ve learnt, over the past few weeks of truncating wish-lists, that it takes very little to keep the twin flames of joy and hope alive. A perfectly ripe watermelon. Breeze and birdsong. The snug curve of a well-worn mattress. The lush green of a garden, even one you don’t own. Sloppy kisses from a dog whose trust was easy to win. Reading your personal diary from school, becoming an age you can never be again. These are pleasures one can acquire without a meaty bank balance. These are pleasures a meaty bank balance may not be able to acquire.
This morning, like every morning since I joined the ranks of the unemployed, I wake up blank-headed. I have no fancy accoutrements to don and no humans to please. So, I stay in bed and watch the ceiling fan rotate. For a full fifteen minutes. At first it makes me uneasy, because the default setting in my brain is productivity guilt mode, which strongly dissuades me from spending time on anything that does not add up to something. So, I would normally never be caught fan-gazing on a Monday morning. Yet here I am – aimless, fallen by the wayside. In this vast world crumbling under the might of a tiny microbe, I am, like millions of others, collateral damage.
My father used to say one should make just enough to afford whatever it is one can’t bear to lose.
Let’s see. What is the one thing I can’t bear to lose? I guess that would be tea.
But tea is a cheap thrill, entirely affordable. Whether you live in a mansion or the mansion’s garage, tea leaves cost and taste the same. At this point, I have more than enough money to afford tea.
To feel better, I make a mental note of all the stuff I will not need to buy in the near future – clothes and shoes, soap and shampoo, gadgets, medicines. Not bad at all. I will need to spend on food, of course, but simple food without adornment I can afford. For now at least. And tea.
I remind myself that I have a fully functional body. I will exert it when the money depletes. I may not be able to wriggle my way into the suit-boot-tie race anytime soon but the world has plenty other occupations. For instance, wealthy people in need of helping limbs. Maybe I could help a lonely octogenarian run their home? I could groom dogs and mow lawns and make sandwiches and clean furniture. I could babysit other people’s children, read out bedtime stories to put them to sleep. I could do a whole lot of things that have nothing to do with Excel sheets.
I feel much better now.
Look, I know this one thing: if I stand to starve, I will find my way to make a quick buck.
But for now, there is food on the table and I am comfortably idle. I no longer have a noose around my neck. There is no one to compete with, win against, or lose out to. I am an adult with an abundance of one thing adults are not supposed to have: time.
Maybe that isn’t all that bad.
So, I set my insecurities aside for a bit and do what I have never done since becoming an adult: I spend the rest of my Monday staring at the ceiling fan.
Megha Nayar was longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020 and the New Asian Writing Short Story Prize 2020. More recently, one of her stories was selected to be showcased at India's prestigious Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2021. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Trampset, Variety Pack, Versification, Rejection Letters, Burnt Breakfast, Brown Sugar, Marias at Sampaguitas, Cauldron Anthology, Harpy Hybrid Review, Potato Soup Journal, Postscript Mag, Ayaskala Mag and The Daily Drunk Mag, among others. She tweets at @meghasnatter.
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