WIFE!—who would not tolerate this complaint of his, who no longer indulged his talking, who could not even bear to look at him.
Film still from Apu Sansar (The World of Apu), directed by Satyajit Ray, 1959.
The whiskey burned an electric stripe down Birbal’s throat, heated his belly, warmed his loins. Tonight, like every evening, every night, like Shamzhad Begum on the All-India Radio Hour, whenever Birbal finished up a job, he pulled out the drying rack to lay out the days’ proofs. Birbal changed into a fresh shirt, collecting one from the increasing number of items that he kept in his office, attached to house, but enough away from—WIFE! Overcome by his desire to leave this house, fueled by drink, he pushed the large buttons through their small holes. In the kitchen, the cook and the maid prepared his rotis for takeaway and said, “The wholewhole night, he’s drinking in the Mall, does he think he’s a younger or a biggerdeal man than he is?” Yet Birbal only lived in the sliver of his thoughts—Oh, the indignity!—of the afternoon, of prepping a proof for Mrs. Radiowala’s son’s wedding invitation, getting it back from her husband, who requested mismatched typefaces! Chaos for the eyes! WIFE!—who would not tolerate this complaint of his, who no longer indulged his talking, who could not even bear to look at him. Even when they were in the same room, she did not indicate that he spoke, that he existed, but, no—she was not frozen entirely, she acknowledged the children, the maid, the cook, but not the husband. Thinking of—WIFE!—he felt red and hot, his skin prickly, who was she anyway? On the tonga ride to the Mall, listening to the clap of the horses’ step, he tried to get her out of his mind. He brought his own bottle to the Coffee Shop, a new frequented spot, met the wild men in tame suits reciting poetry and debating Trostsky and Stalin, to be away from—WIFE! He plunged into the world of warm sips and loud words and firm slaps to the shoulder. The fellow over there said his journal may publish a folio of Birbal’s ghazals! Birbal imagined the rush of seeing his words in print, edited, bound, collected, arranged by someone else! As a printer, he certainly could have created his own broadsides and books—but that would have been a “vanity press” publication. The joy of hearing his work was selected for the journal, one that was esteemed, ought to have meant more—WIFE! The loneliness had gone on for too long, it had been four excruciating months. Finally, this night, Birbal went to Heera Mandi with the editor fellow, dragged, not dragged exactly, to be entertained by one of Faisal’s girls, who danced for him and lead him to her bed, and he felt the warmth and moisture of a woman again. This time he was filled with rage—WIFE!—who denied him his right, and he lost his focus, he was losing himself, so he left Heera Mandi, incensed that—WIFE!—entered his mind, just as he was trying to do anything to not think about her, she was here again, now in the tonga, traveling with him, back to his home, her home. Cold. He knotted a pashmina scarf under his chin, over his ears, this pashmina purchased by her. Could he think about something other than the twitch of her mouth? WIFE! Years before, he had bought her Hidayatnama, meant for a bride, but given to her after their first child was born, when she allowed her husband in more easily, a shift in both body and feeling toward that aspect of marriage—WIFE!—had overcome shyness, and she realized that a flip of her hair over the right shoulder charmed her husband, and he realized that if he came behind her and placed his hands on her shoulders, he could feel her tighten for a second and then relax and expand into his hands, this language of marriage—I am here with you. I am to be had by you—and she must have read that particular chapter, and she had taken him into her mouth, and here he was—The Luckiest Man In Lahore!—the man who purchased a sex manual for his wife, who took the risk that she might run to an ashram cursing this pulsation, whose wife surprised him with a lesson she had learned, and then he would no longer let Faisal’s girls do that thing—that thing that now became embedded into the fabric of his marriage—WIFE! Grotesque, it was, to feel this kind of affection for a woman because marriage was a transaction, a domesticity, a religious duty—it should not be this—but here he was, a broken man who made the mistake of falling deeply in love with—WIFE! He refused to release her of this expectation. The death of their son only made him crave more intimacy, more intensity, more connection. To even think about this, how absurd, a grown man, a proper businessman, a poet, to be so consumed over a woman when it was he who should be the object of her insecurity and desire. What consumes her inner life? He wondered. A fool. A cruel joke. And yet. He realized—Tonight, she will not deny him, husband! Tonight, she will be proper wife! They were not yet forty! They were not sanyasis! She knew he was no Mahatma! He was man, flesh, bone, seed! This was marriage! He walked into the house, through the shop door, smelled the combination of lemon peels and kerosene. Solvent. He loved that smell. Walking, he stroked the cement walls, holes, cracks, smooth, cold. In some patches, the paint was especially slick. This house. Her house. A little stool next to the settee covered with dolls, made of socks and dress sleeves, made by—WIFE!—when she knew they could buy nice European-style things. Why was she so angry? Because he was willing to live after their son died, she would not forgive him for not mourning enough? For heaven’s sake, did she believe he transmitted polio to their son? Not even a smile to share, he realized it had been a long time since she had smiled in his presence, even when she turned away, he looked at the back of her head, the edge of her ear, the shape of her cheek, he could see her smile, before, before, before all that—WIFE!—walking up the steps, he couldn’t hear his feet stomp beyond the sounds of his own heartbeat. He opened the door to her room. A lump of a sleeping woman. Long hair braided, tucked into a batik-print long night dress, under piles of thick velvety, plush, razais—WIFE!—always did get cold, and he knew how to warm her up. He noticed, as he lifted the corner of the razai, and it had been so long. That night, her hips were now slimmer, her hair darker, her breathing softer. Standing, facing her, he felt himself, strong and thick. Then he heard—WIFE!—her piercing whisper; but wasn’t she in the bed?—No!—She was at the door! Was he that drunk? Was his wife in two places? Sleeping in the bed, as he was inches away from her body, and also at the door? How can that be?—WIFE!—grabbed his ear lobe, and yanked him out of the bed into the hallway, he staggered into the stairwell, rubbed his eyes, faced that woman. And then he looked toward the door, toward the bed, toward what he realized was—NOT WIFE!—and he felt vomit from too much scotch, the smell of Faisal’s girl, the thought of what he almost did, he started to shake—“Why is she sleeping in your bed?” he asked—“The younger one is sick, the older one came to me, we switched beds,” she answered—Logic! But!—“I thought it was you,” he said—“What if I were sleeping? What if I could actually sleep? What if I hadn’t been awake, hearing your thump thump thump?” she asked. “I am worthless, a stray dog,” he said. She slapped him on the face. The air was charged. His skin was electric. “Do it again,” he said. She huffed through her nostrils. Her lips clenched tight. “Again,” he said, taking her hand and kissing her palm. Her skin smelled of onions, salt, and cumin. She pulled her hand from his, about to slap him again, kept it firm, paddle-like, inches from his face. She stroked his cheek, “You should call Ramsingh for a shave,” she said. “You’re getting rough.”
Swati Khurana has been published in The New York Times, The Weeklings, Narrative.ly, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and Asian American Literary Review. She has exhibited at the DUMBO Arts Festival, Queens Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and received awards from Jerome Foundation, Bronx Council of the Arts, Cooper Union, and Center for Book Arts. She completed her MFA in fiction at Hunter College, where she was awarded the Mary M. Fay Award in Poetry and a Hertog Fellowship. A Kundiman fellow, she is writing a novel titled The No.1 Printshop of Lahore, of which this story is an excerpt. She lives in the Bronx.