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"Look at us. You're an engineer who is reduced to cleaning your house and I'm an architect who is a wife, mother, cook, chauffeur, tutor...what happened to us?"
“Why aren’t you angry?”
Nisha asked a very calm Neeraj who finally popped in after the many messages she left imploring him to come by and see her. She beckoned him to follow her to the kitchen where she was in the middle of making fresh chapatis for dinner later that evening.
She went over to the far side of the kitchen island where she had all her accouterments spread out -wheat flour, water, olive oil, a rolling pin, and the chakla (flat circular rolling board to spread the dough into round pitas).
“What’s the point?” Neeraj remarked as he took an apple from a glass bowl. He bit into it and looked around the room. It looked like a mini-hurricane had swept through. He’d never seen Nisha’s kitchen in such disarray before. Apart from all of her dinner paraphernalia that was spread across the island, it appeared as if Nisha had done some major shopping that morning. There were multiple bags filled to the brim with everything from cleaning supplies to food staples and snacks, casually strewn about on the floor. As he chewed on the apple, Nisha could tell that the airy and composed behavior was just an act. She saw how tightly he held his apple and how he pursed his lips and clenched his teeth between bites.
“So, what is it-If you truly love her, set her free. If she comes back, great. If she doesn’t, she never was yours anyway?” Nisha said.
Neeraj nodded as he finished the apple in a few quick bites. He rummaged through the bag containing the chips, dug out a big bag of Lays barbecue chips, ripped it open and dove right in. “Yes. That’s exactly it,” he said as slowly paced the room between munching on the chips. “I always knew it, Nisha. I loved her more than she did me. If we’d had kids, she would’ve stayed for the long haul. But since we didn’t…,” he shrugged.
Nisha took a long hard look at Neeraj. He was constantly chewing on something or the other non-stop (Where do all those calories go? Nisha and Anu had always wondered).
He was tall, 6’2″ tall. An angular face with a perfect jawline to die for. His dark eyes were framed by some of the longest eyelashes she’d ever seen in a man, or a woman. His blemish-free skin was tinted light gold in color…like Indian chai. He wore a pair of well-used and well-washed blue jeans and a blue, white, and black checked untucked shirt with the top two buttons left open. His feet were bare since he didn’t wear shoes or slippers inside the house. He played squash and tennis every single day and the hard work showed. There was not an ounce of spare flesh anywhere. All that AND he cooked, cleaned, loved, and looked after his wife. He picked her up every day from work. He gave her backrubs and foot massages when she had a tough day being an opinionated woman in a very male-dominated IT industry.
While Rahul had indulged her during the initial years after their marriage, Nisha could count on one hand the number of times over the past five-something years Rahul had even just asked Nisha how her day had been. Two. Two times, he’d asked how she was and how her day had been. But Neeraj? He doted on Anu.
And to think that she – Nisha – had cautioned Anu against marrying him because he sacrificed his career so Anu could shine. He was, almost literally, a dream come true. What else could any woman want?
Why on earth was Anu hell-bent on screwing up what clearly appeared to be an amazing partnership?
Nisha looked at the dough she’d been kneading for the past ten minutes. It looked a little runny but done. She spread some dry flour on the island and rolled the big wet and lumpy dough over it, patted it into a long cylindrical shape, pulled it apart into small one-inch squares, and then rolled them one by one into balls. “Is she having an affair? Is Anu seeing someone else?” she asked Neeraj suddenly.
Neeraj looked as taken aback as Nisha felt. What? An affair? He thought about it for a few seconds and shook his head furiously. “No. No affair. That, I’m sure of. The best thing about Anu is how honest she is. She doesn’t play dirty. Or lie or cheat. That would be beneath her.” He sighed.
He crumpled the Lays packet and threw it into the trash can like a basketball into a net. And like when he played basketball and the ball went everywhere but inside the basket – the packet touched the outer border of the trash can and fell on the floor. He walked over, picked up the packet, and tossed it in the trashcan. “Nope. I almost wish she had cheated, you know? That I can accept. Attractions happen between people. A purely physical relationship…that will eventually fizzle out. It’ll hurt like hell but I could handle that. No. She just fell out of love with me, Nisha. That’s the most god’s honest truth of the situation.”
“Do you think it was because of…you know…?” Nisha stopped. And left her question hanging.
Neeraj chuckled mildly. “What? She fell out of love because I quit my job and decided to be a stay-at-home dad? That I was a house husband? And that’s a very un-masculine thing to do-Go against every macho stereotype man who goes out and brings in the dollars while the woman stays back and tends to her home and family?”
Nisha nodded, embarrassed. “Sorry. I mean…”
“She was so chuffed about you and the path you chose for yourself when you guys first met, you know? But…maybe…uhh…do you think she…stopped…like, respecting you? For the very thing that she was so proud of when you met?”
Neeraj shrugged. “Maybe. I’m not sure. Know something? We didn’t really talk about it all that much.”
“Uh huh!” Nisha muttered under her breath. She used the rolling pin to flatten and roll the wheat ball into an even flatbread but the dough was still too wet and the gooey texture was sticking to the board. She sighed. She collected all of the small rounded dough balls, blending them together again. She sprinkled more wheat flour into the mixture, smooshed her fist, and started to knead it again, slamming it on the island with a vengeance.
Bam. Slam. Pow.
All that slamming of the dough (the more you knead and slam it, the softer the chapati, Nisha said) and some of the dry flour wafted across the kitchen counter and towards Neeraj. By now his eyeglasses had a thin coat of flour as well as a few lumps of wet dough. Neeraj grimaced, took his glasses off, walked to the kitchen sink, opened the tap, placed his glasses under the running water, and let it flow all over them.
He sensed Nisha’s eyes glaring at his back.
“Look at us. You’re an engineer who is reduced to cleaning your house and I’m an architect who is a wife, mother, cook, chauffeur, tutor…what happened to us? It’s the middle of the day and all I’ve done is drive my kids to school, go shopping for bathroom supplies, and am now making flatbread for dinner. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of it but this is not quite what I’d thought my life would turn out to be.”
Neeraj nodded and shook the glasses to get the water off them even as a small residue of the wet flour clung for its dear life to one side of the frame. He blew over it to nudge the sticky substance to the surface and then scooped it out with a paper towel before he washed them again and wiped them clean.
“Stop with the cleaning.”
He turned and shrugged.
“When you clean something…you really clean, don’t you?” she said sarcastically. Neeraj smiled. He started to say something but stopped. And stared.
Nisha’s face glistened with a mild layer of perspiration which was a result of pounding the pastry dough. And from anger at what she felt her life was reduced to. From what was happening to him. And at Anu for putting him through what Nisha clearly felt was unfair behavior. The gleaming orange-yellow rays of the sun gleamed through the kitchen window, framing her anxious and perturbed visage even as uneven strands of black, grey, and hennaed red hair tied in a ponytail escaped and clung to her oval face. One longer strand got entangled in her mouth. She blew on it even as she elbowed it away from her mouth.
She looked almost ethereal, Neeraj thought.
Close your mouth, jackass!
“I’ll stop cleaning if you take a break from all the pounding.”
Nisha sniggered. “My life runs like clockwork. If I stop for even a minute – my schedule goes haywire. I have to get the chapatis done now or the kids will get unhealthy takeout for dinner. I won’t be home later as I have to accompany my husband to a party this evening.”
Neeraj started to say something when Nisha cut him off. “Don’t change the subject. So? Why don’t you and Anu talk…” Nisha started again when the doorbell rang.
Neeraj looked at his cell phone. “3:30 pm. Who is it? Are the kids back from school already?”
Nisha shook her head. “Oh, god, no! It’s just after three. They don’t get back till 5 in the evening. And thank God for that. No, It’s the iron guy. I need to give him our clothes to get them ironed.”
Nisha started to take out her hands that were buried deep inside the wheat dough to wash them and open the front door when Neeraj said, “Don’t sweat it. I’ll get the door. Where are the clothes?”
“In a laundry basket by the entrance corridor.”
“Cool. I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere!”
Neeraj jetted out of the kitchen and opened the front door and Nisha heard him greet the iron guy. Where am I going to go? Nisha thought incredulously. And then shook her head and started with the runny dough again. Maybe she should add some more salt? The last time she made chapatis her son said it tasted like cardboard. She picked up the salt shaker and shook some salt in the dough when she saw a distorted reflection of herself on the silver surface.
OMG, she shrieked silently! I look like a demoness. What’s with my hair? Why are there so many broken strands? Getting old sucks! And the worst is thinning hair. She, of the luscious long and thick mane fame, the one that Rahul couldn’t get enough of the day he came to ‘see’ her all those years back – she now had thinning hair with brittle strands enveloping her face. And then there were beads of sweat all over. Her one allowance for makeup – eyeliner – was smudged all around her eyes and she looked like she was Joker on the make. I can’t believe I’ve had a conversation with one of the most gorgeous men I’ve ever seen looking like this. Sure, I don’t want to do him or anything but I’m vain enough to want to look good, she thought indignantly.
She washed her hands of the sticky gooey dough and wiped them clean on the dishrag next to the sink. She grabbed a fresh fork from inside the utensil drawer and saw her sad reflection again. She quickly combed her fingers through her disheveled hair to try and bring a semblance of order to them. She then grabbed a paper napkin, dabbed it with some water, and tried to clean the smudgy eyeliner remnants from around her eyes. She heard the front door close and quickly tossed the paper napkin in the trash can and returned to the island and to the dough as if she had been there the whole time.
“All OK with the iron guy?” she asked casually.
Neeraj nodded and gave her a thumbs up.
“So…you were saying? About the most important decision of your life? The decision to separate?” Nisha prodded him.
“What’s the point?” Neeraj retorted.
“Don’t you want to know why she is breaking up with you? Why does she want to divorce you? After just one year of marriage? You guys are just giving up? Don’t you want to fight for your marriage?” Nisha asked with disbelief.
“I know why she wants to separate and get a divorce,” Neeraj said gravely. “She fell out of love with me, Nisha. What else is there to talk about? I’m not giving up. I’m giving her what she wants. How is asking her for more details on how I’m not good enough for her anymore going to help me? Or the fact that she’s bored with me? Honestly, how is that going to help me?”
Nisha shuffled her feet and looked away from him. She just couldn’t take it…the injustice of it all.
Neeraj slowly put his hands out, and held her flour-coated hand and touched her face. Nisha jerked back in shock. He then scooped something from under her right eye. It was a small piece of gooey dough. Neeraj smiled and then flicked it away. Nisha looked sheepish for a second – it was almost as if Neeraj knew that she had quickly cleaned her face…for him.
And then she remembered why he was there and shook herself and broke out of her ridiculous reverie.
“It’s done, Nisha.” Neeraj said softly. “It doesn’t matter why she fell out of love with me. She just did. I may be a lot of things but staying where I’m not needed is not one of them. She may or may not respect me for my choices. But I respect them. And I respect myself. And honestly? Isn’t that all that matters?”
Nisha nodded. After a moment of quiet, she said, “And I respect you,” she said softly.
When Neeraj pointed to his ears to suggest he didn’t hear what she said, Nisha looked directly into his eyes and reiterated firmly and strongly, “I respect you, OK? Never forget that. I respect you.”
Image Source: Still from the series ‘Made in Heaven’
Hi...I'm Roopa. I'm also a messy optimist! I'm an academic-cum-artist. I'm a writer, filmmaker and professor of creative writing. Academically, I've a Double Masters and a Phd read more...
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