A short story - from September 2018
Hm. was dropped off by his driver in front of the apartment complex. His wife and son were already there, in the playground nearby. This is where he usually found them after work. His wife—Urmila—had her long hair open flying behind her, looking drenched as if she had just washed it. She wore a sunny, yellow house-dress. His son—Sharav—was in a red T-shirt and red shorts, bent on all fours as he raced his toy trucks around the sand near the swing-set. There were a few other children with their mothers and their fathers and their dogs strolling around the green grass, or rolling in the sand, or speaking gibberish and following it with peals of laughter. It had stopped raining but the air was still humid, Hm. had begun to sweat through his armpits and his back.
Urmila waved with appropriate glee when she saw him. “Hi,” she said. Hm. nodded back a hello to her and his child.
“Hi Daddy!” Sharav said excitedly. “Spider-Bat flew across the swimming pool today and then lost his cape and then shot lasers at the little frogs and now Spider-Bat’s tired, so he’s asleep.”
Hm. was familiar with his son’s wild imagination, of the old toys he combined to make new ones in his head. He nodded and smiled to Sharav. Yes, sure, whatever you say.
Hm’s return meant that now they would all walk back into the building and take the elevator to their apartment. Their complex rose high into the clouds, up to 32 floors, up a thick, cylindrical building modelled to look like a sasta fake version of one of the Petronas Towers in Malaysia. Urmila held Sharav’s left hand and she also held a bucket full of his action figures. Sharav offered his right hand up to Hm., and even though it was a little encrusted with the playground’s mud and sand, Hm. held it.
“How was your day?” Hm. asked Urmila, like he did every day.
“You won’t believe it,” she started. “They hired that cartoonist. That Bengali guy I told you about.”
Hm. recalled, yes, she had told him about the Bengali cartoonist before. “That… That 3D something guy?” They entered the building lobby and waited on the elevator. Hm. was glad to be indoors from the hot, sticky air outside. He pressed the round metal button up to home. Eighth floor.
“Yes,” Urmila said. “He’s so, so creative. Like, really, super creative. He makes these comics that read one thing one way. Kids playing football, animals racing, stuff like that. But if you fold the pages inwards, it looks 3D, do you understand?” she looked at him, and there was an extra dimensionality to her large eyes as she spoke. “The playing children suddenly look like they’re torturing someone. The animals get adorned in all this orange stuff, like fascist insignia. It becomes this whole anti-government thing. It’s fascinating. So fascinating.”
She was fascinated, Hm. thought.
“How about you?” she asked him. “How was your work.”
“Good.” Hm. replied. “I got a promotion.”
The elevator tinked as they reached their floor and the doors slid open. Sharav let his parents’ hands loose and scampered ahead
“What?” Urmila exclaimed. “Oh my god, Love, that’s fantastic!”
“Yes,” Hm. agreed. He turned the lock into their apartment and all three of them walked in. Home smelled like home: garlic, orange air-freshener, Sharav’s feet.
“Did they just… Did they just confirm it today? What a surprise! That’s fantastic!”
“They did,” Hm. shrugged. “I was due after six years there. They had to choose between me and Tripathi. They chose me.”
Hm. didn’t need to tell her the whole story. How he and Tripathi were both picked to lead Jepal Co.’s new advertising strategy. Their longstanding brand ambassador was a retired former cricket player, who had opted out of his contract and demanded a considerable raise. Tripathi wanted the company to sign an up-and-coming young model who was big with the millennials on her short social media clips.
She was a “bad girl”, Tripathi said, making air quotations at the meeting. “She made that online video, you know, eating jalebis slowly in her bedroom? Too slowly.” She would be worth the risk, he said.
Tripathi was ambitious, Hm. thought. Too ambitious. But Hm. knew the market. He suggested that they cave and give the old cricketer his asking price. Hm. liked the cricketer: he was a popular, handsome face, and he had been selling Jepal Cola for decades.
The National Operations Manager—Hm.’s Boss Man—agreed. “That’s the safe choice,” he said. The contract was signed, and Hm. got his promotion.
“That’s amazing news!” Urmila’s big eyes got bigger.
Sharav stationed himself and his toy bucket on the red carpet. “Shoes off, Sharav!” Urmila told him. The apartment was untidy; no matter how much Hm. tried to bring order onto things, he knew that Urmila believed in finding comfort in chaos. Even when that marble coffee-table looked cluttered with pens and loose papers, she knew exactly where to find something when she needed it. She had photo frames hung up asymmetrically on the walls with hi-definition portraits of fakirs and Garasia tribal dancers from her trip to the Pushkar Camel Fair years ago. Even that carpet—red with yellow blotches on the four corner tiles, hand woven from Varanasi, and one of Hm.’s favourite possessions—was treated with neglect, with its corners buckling and rolling into lumps under the couch and around their dining table in the back of the room. Urmila had told him that she found it somehow reassuring, that the house felt more like a home in its unevenness, like it had some personality.
She took her sandals off and left them scattered next to the rack. Hm. unlaced his black, polished shoes and shelved them neatly.
“Your socks,” Urmila suddenly said. “Why are you wearing two different socks.”
She was a sharp one, his wife. Indeed, Hm. was wearing two different socks this day. On his right foot was one half of the expensive pair Urmila had bought for him a few months ago for his 41st birthday. An international brand called Petr and Wallace. Rarely available in India. Scottish cotton. Toe and sole reinforced with soft, strong Polyamide. Stylish, too. Red with horizontal yellow stripes. A great fit. A sock beyond what Hm. deserved.
The sock on his left foot was light-grey, faded after years of washing. Knockoff sports brand. Loose and limp over his ankles.
Usually, Hm. would have told Urmila the truth. After wearing the expensive sock on his right, he had been unable to find the other Petr and Wallace. He had searched all around their bedroom, and the bathroom, and even in the living room and the little area out in the balcony where the dhobi kept all of their clothes for the Sunday wash, but it wasn’t there. In a rush, he found the nearest other single sock and put it on. Grey and old.
“Did you lose it?” Urmila seemed to know him before he knew his own answer. “I bought it for your birthday, Love. It was really expensive.”
Hm. couldn’t remember when he wore those socks last, where he took them off.
He remembered, however, his 41st birthday. Urmila had made a special cheesy pasta dish, Sharav coloured in a card with crayons, and he received that Petr and Wallace. He knew how much it meant to her, and even though he couldn’t feign enthusiasm when he first unwrapped the plastic, he began to appreciate the socks from the first time he wore it the next morning. They were comfortable sliding up his ankles and kept his feet cool even in the height of the North Indian summer. He sweated less, and in turn, his feet thanked him by stinking lesser, too.
She would be crestfallen, if, just a few months later, her gift had been unpaired. He looked between Sharav on the carpet and Urmila’s concerned, questioning eyes, and he decided something rare and risky, something that arose from deep within him, from a part of his neural reasoning interceptors that worked without his full permission, from a place of subconscious, from something he had usually suppressed. His instinct.
“I left it,” he said. “At work.”
Urmila raised an eyebrow, looking confused.
“Why did you take off your socks at work?”
“Mummy!” Sharav called out. “Where’s the blue one? The blue car?”
“Check under the couch, beta,” Urmila said, and then turned to Hm. “You took off your socks at work?”
“I stepped in a puddle,” Hm. replied, surprising himself with his own sense of confidence in the fabrication. He spoke without a hitch. “We had gone for lunch, and there was a puddle outside the dosa-wallah stand. I got my full foot drenched, bas! Had to get it wiped and polished again.”
“Mummy! The blue one?”
Urmila walked up to Sharav and gently pushed the couch backwards. Between dust and old pieces of fried potato chips, there was a little, blue, toy Maruti.
Hm. had to be creative, he knew. Urmila was familiar with storytelling. It was her absolute speciality, her profession at the publishing company to read fictions, to edit them, to critique.
“So, I just walked down to the mall next door and bought a new pair,” he continued.
Urmila strolled up to the dining table and began to gently slide around the place-mats. They were already set perfectly, straight and parallel to the table’s edges. But she shuffled them up anyways.
“So you…” she said. “… You wore one of each?”
“Oh yeah,” Hm. said, and then sniggered. “No need to get rid of the other nice one, was there?”
“You went shopping? You never go shopping alone.”
That was true; since he had married her, he never had. Not even for small things like a book or a pen. Or a pair of socks.
“I went with a colleague,” he said.
“I also want to go to the mall, Daddy,” Sharav said.
“With a colleague?” Urmila asked. “Which colleague?”
He never talked to her about people at work. He rarely named names.
“Simrin,” he said. “I went to the mall with Simrin.”
Simrin. That was the first name that popped into his head. She was nobody, really. She was a consultant for the advertising company that worked with Jepal on their newest campaign. She and four of her colleagues—all young early-twenty-somethings fresh out of college—had temporarily located to cubicles near Hm.’s corner room at the office. All of them had seemingly boundless amounts of enthusiasm and energy for the job, and they stayed in the office for sixteen hours a day. While Hm. and the rest of the Jepal staff made sure to follow formal dress protocol, these young creative-types showed up in T-shirts and track-pants and flayed their limbs around their cubicles, spinning pencils between their fingers, shooting paper basketballs into the dustbin. They spoke rapidly, and threw ambitious ideas at each other, and reacted to everything they said in their bubble as if it was a ground-breaking revelation.
Simrin had short hair, and she wore T-shirts with large colourful lettering, and she spoke loudly and laughed even louder, and had small, perky breasts sticking up inside her T-shirt, and sometimes she wore clear, round spectacles, and sometimes she didn’t. Hm.’s subordinates at Jepal often sat beside her and the other advertising staff and talked about the campaigns, and then reported back to Hm. via email. Hm. had never spoken directly to her. She may not have even ever noticed him. The young don’t distinguish men of his age in the same way. He was still handsome, he knew—tall and unthreateningly muscular with a sharp jaw and thick eyebrows—but his head was now carpeted in a well-seamed fraction of grey hair, and his once-youthful cheeks had begun to sag with wrinkles of age.
“Who’s Simrin, Love?” Urmila asked again.
Hm. looked at his watch and, as casually as he could, walked up behind Sharav to fall into the couch. He was indeed tired; this was no act.
“They’re sending me to Frankfurt for a project, Urmi,” he said, and then thought for another second, because he suddenly had much more fiction to imagine. “Big company trip; will be out there for a week.”
This wasn’t unusual, he knew. Jepal sent him for trips all the time. Chennai and Hong Kong and London. Frankfurt was just another city.
“Need to get started on some reports tonight,” he yawned. “Will be working a little late, okay?”
“There’s egg-pasta in the fridge,” she said. “Sharav and I ate already.”
“Thanks,” Hm. said, still seated. “I’ll heat it up.”
“Come on, beta,” Urmila called Sharav from across the room. “Time for bed.”
Unless he was in a particularly difficult mood—hungry, excessively tired, excessively bored—Sharav was a good, compliant child. He didn’t complain. When Urmila called him, he placed all of his toys in the bucket and skipped out to her.
“Say goodnight to Daddy,” she told him.
“Goodnight,” Hm. said.
“Daddy: say goodnight to Spider-Bat, too.”
And Urmila and Sharav left him, and Urmila turned off all the lights except the lamp on a side-table next to Hm., and only when he was alone did Hm. realise how rapidly his heart had been beating, as if it was itching to burst out of his chest, ready to be free without the constraints of his rules and regulations, ready to breathe.
Hm. had fallen asleep on the couch watching National Geographic, something about moth species in the Iberian Peninsula. Nat Geo was his favourite channel, because it explained the world without opinion.
Like she usually did every morning, Urmila left for work early. She took Sharav with her to drop him at school on her way.
As soon as she walked out the door, as soon as he was alone, Hm. dropped his piece of buttered toast and his cup of chai and rushed back into their bedroom. He crouched down to peer underneath the bed. He moved around the side-tables and then carefully structured them back in their original position. He lifted up the carpet folds in the corners and sneezed as particles of old dust wafted up to him. He searched his closet, his shelves, and on the floor. He searched on her side of the closet, in the difficult pile of clothes stacked in random mounds together. Evening dresses with bras. Winter jackets and socks. But he couldn’t find his other sock.
How could she function in this mess, he wondered? How could he live in chaos like this? Over time, Hm. knew he had softened. Time gave him a blind spot, an ability to ignore Urmila’s habits as long as his side of the house—his folded clothes, his uncluttered bedside table, his bookshelf—were left to him and him alone.
Now, he struggled to think what had connected them together when they had first met, nine years ago. Some couples—he had heard—grew to think and behave and even look alike as they spent more time together. But in their case, Hm. had begun to diverge further away from his wife. Time had given him a larger sample size of differences, a longer path in a different direction.
In the beginning, they occasionally argued about their differences. But the arguments had turned to tolerance, and tolerance to ignorance. They came together now after every day to talk briefly about each other’s work, to offer one hand each to Sharav and walk him forward. In bed, Hm. and Urmila usually slept facing opposite directions. Hm. covered himself neck-down completely inside the bedsheet while Urmila kicked her side down and flailed her limbs, sometimes so far that they dangled precariously off her side of the bed, making Hm. fear that she might roll over and fall off.
The first few times it happened, Hm. tried to save her. He tried to pull her in closer towards him, but she shrugged him off in half-consciousness. When he woke up to use the toilet in the middle of the night, he gently pushed her in, back towards the centre of the bed. She kicked him away in mid-dream. He told her about it over breakfast when she was awake, but she told him to leave her alone.
“Stop trying to save me,” she smiled.
She used to say that often. Why do you think you can save me? she said, when he tried to teach her how to drive. My hero! she would joke, in a sarcastic voice, when he offered to carry her luggage on the flight to Goa for their honeymoon. Another lesson from Mr. Smartypants! she mocked, whenever he explained something he thought she didn’t understand, like rovers finding water on Mars, or sci-fi Hollywood movie plots, or the nutrients available in women’s breast milk.
He had earned this reputation, of course. At school and college, he had always been a topper. He got to choose from his pick of management institutions around the country, and then went to England for his MBA, and, still only 27, got hired by Solo Cola, and some years later, poached by their competitors at Jepal.
He had worked hard, done no piacular deeds, and faced no roadblocks in his way. He had made it.
But in making it, he wondered, had he made the road too smooth for himself? Did he need those bumps in the road to keep the journey interesting? When Hm. was young, his mother had gifted him a Children’s Science Kit. He mixed a couple of powders into a volcano and watched it explode, and his face lit up in delight because he didn’t know how it had happened. He told himself that he wanted to do this all his life, that he wanted to ask questions and discover their answers for himself.
But now, his life was fixed. Yes, he sighed; there were no more questions.
Except for one. Where was that other sock?
He was late for work and he halted his search. He got dressed up like he always did: collared, full-sleeved white shirt, black trousers, black coat.
But his mind was still with the child that had questioned the exploding volcano. So, before he put his black shoes on, he deliberately wore two different pairs of socks again: blue on his left foot; dark green on his right. He left home with a wide smile on his face.
Hm.’s driver dropped him near the playground in front of the building when he got back home from work. Urmila and Sharav were waiting for him. Hm. asked Urmila about her day and Urmila asked Hm. about his, and Urmila told him more about the new cartoonist and Hm. shrugged.
Before Sharav was put to bed, he told Hm. about Spider-Bat again, that today Spider-Bat had fought against a pack of stray dogs and destroyed them with his laser eyes.
“Is that true?” Hm. asked, dandling with his son’s imagination. “I didn’t know he had those powers?”
“Yes, Daddy,” Sharav giggled. “Spider-Bat has lasers in his eyes now.”
“How did that happen?” Hm. could feel his voice rising in inflection, as if he was echoing his son’s excitement.
Sharav thought about it for a moment “From the sun, Daddy,” he finally said. “He was out in the bright light too long. It gave him lasers.”
“Wow,” Hm. looked between Sharav and Urmila, who wore a bemused smile on her face. “I might need to get outdoors a little bit more tomorrow, right?”
Unlike some of his colleagues, Hm. never left the office building for lunch. At noon every day, he took the elevator to the basement food-court, ordered himself a vegetarian thali, and ate each item in each katora to completion: the rice, the rotis, the daal, pickles, the sabzi of the day, the yoghurt. Often, he sat alone.
On Friday, the food-court was more crowded than usual. There were bustles of fleeting conversation, squeaking of rubber and leather shoe soles on the tiled floor, screeching of metal on metal on the thali. Two of Hm.’s colleagues found their place on the long table around him.
“Good-afternoon,” they both nodded at Hm. One of them was Tripathi, whom Hm. could always recognise by the slow gait of his movements, his heavy breaths when he talked and laughed and ate, by his ever-sweaty fat neck, by his bulging waist that no belt could contain. Tripathi was younger than Hm. and yet looked as if was nearing 60, as if he was one last cholesterol-heavy pakora away from a heart attack.
The other man, sitting opposite Tripathi, was someone new. He wore square-rimmed spectacles and a moustache, and a white, clean shirt, just like Hm.
“Did you see the new memo, bhai?” Tripathi smiled his difficult smile, and Hm. nodded his silence and mumbled. “Hmm” with a mouthful of rice and yellow daal.
“Profits are up everywhere but North America, aren’t they?” the other man replied. “You think it’s the election effect?”
“No, no,” Tripathi said. “Elections don’t change anything. North America is always unpredictable with things like this. You can’t compare. Our model will be robust here, no matter what. Isn’t it?” Now, Tripathi turned to Hm. again.
“Hmm,” Hm. said. But he wasn’t paying attention to Tripathi anymore, or to the new guy, or the talk of profits, or their food, or his food even. He was looking straight ahead beyond them, a few long-tables away, where among a crowd of other men and women who worked in his office or in any of the other half-dozen offices on different floors of the complex, he saw her, the woman he had invented.
She was sitting with the group of other youngsters from the advertising agency, all eating and gossiping with energy that exhausted Hm. She held centre-stage, speaking rapidly and passionately about something, with animated hand gestures to communicate everything she said. Sometimes her face fell serious, sometimes she covered her mouth because she couldn’t hold her laughter in.
He wondered where she was from, whether she lived in Gurgaon like him, too. No, he decided, she probably lived somewhere in Delhi, and probably took the Yellow Line every day to Sikandarpur, and changed to the local Rapid Metro. Maybe she took auto-rickshaws and haggled for a few rupees to save every bit of her salary. Maybe she carpooled with her friends home in the evening, when it was too dangerous to travel alone. He wondered if she lived alone or with a group of friends. Or with a boyfriend. Maybe the young man who sat opposite her in that black T-shirt was that boyfriend. He wondered if she, too, ate a vegetarian thali like him. Or did she pick up the egg-and-chicken kathi-rolls from the stall next door? Yes, he decided: she looked like someone who ate kathi-rolls.
He could eat them, too; no problem. He only chose the thali to stick to his daily routine. He wondered if, one of these days, he would take a risk and order something else. If he would get his kathi-roll and sit next to her, and introduce himself, and tell her that he was overseeing Jepal’s new campaign. She would probably smile and respond that, of course, she knew who he was, that she had seen him around in the office. He wondered if he would then have lunch with her regularly, if they could make it a scheduled daily appointment. Could they be friends? He hadn’t made any new female friends since he had met Urmila. He had forgotten how to act around women he didn’t already know. He forgot what to say to make them comfortable in his company, how to hold himself upright opposite them to make them respect him, how to speak in a deep voice to appear as a serious man, or be casual and high-pitched so they felt relaxed in his company. Would she be interested in hearing about his life and work and family? Or would she be keener to talk about her youth, the new movies she had seen, the Himalayan peaks she had trekked to, her ability to stay awake past midnight even on weeknights?
While sitting in the backseat of his car, being driven back home that evening, Hm. listened to radio chatter and looked at the slow-moving traffic out the window. Outside, the suburban metropolis passed him by: expensive cars and auto-rickshaws and bicycles and motorbikes and a metro-line rising on pillars above him, and everything in movement, everything changing, nothing that stayed the same, even when his own vehicle slowed down to a complete halt in Gurgaon’s regular, rush-hour traffic jams. He floated away from himself. He wondered if Urmila would notice that he had worn different socks to work again. What would be his next story, he imagined? Perhaps he would tell her more about the trip to Frankfurt. Upper management would be going for a training exercise, and the advertising team from KXU would go there, too. Four days, three nights. That means meetings with Simrin sitting across the table by day, and dinners where they drank steins of frothy beer together at night. The trip would have to be in mid-September, maybe sometime after the Janmashtami festival, he decided. Around Oktoberfest. Just over a month away, with enough time for him to keep elongating his pretensions.
He decided that he will make up something about another colleague; yes, about that greasy Tripathi. Maybe, Tripathi had had a little too much to drink at their office Diwali bash last year. When the music came on, he began to belt out with the songs, gyrating to the item numbers, singing “Tamma Tamma”. The Boss Man would have seen Tripathi, too, Hm. thought. Yes, yes, and this embarrassing scene would become an infamous blot to Tripathi’s reputation. It eventually cost him his promotion, and even as Hm. moved on to top management, Tripathi remained fixtured to his tiny cubicle.
Hm. laughed out loud to himself and didn’t worry if the driver heard him. He wondered if he could sing in front of his colleagues, too, like Tripathi’s imaginary vocal gymnastics at Diwali. “I’m lucky I’m already a senior in the company,” he said softly, as he planned to say to Urmila later that night. “Can you imagine me having to sing in public? Remember we used to do karaoke together and you always made fun of my voice? You always said it sounds a cawing crow! ‘Kaala kavva gaa raha hai’, you used to say!” And Hm. remembered that even he found it amusing to laugh at himself, and every time Urmila laughed at him, he would only grab and hug her as tight as he could to share in that playful moment.
They didn’t make fun of each other anymore.
What about Simrin, he thought? Did she like those new party songs that they played on the radio? Would she sing karaoke with him, too? Would she laugh at his crow voice, like Urmila used to?
That night, when Urmila asked him about his day, Hm. told her about the Frankfurt trip, about the advertising team, about Simrin, too. Then, he found an excuse to switch to his practiced story about last year’s Diwali: Tripathi’s fictional drunken debacle, about how his voice slurred and how he forgot the lyrics, but still continued to mouth them confidently. Urmila laughed along and imagined the scene for herself: the smell of whiskey on Tripathi’s breath, the crackling from speakers when the music volume was raised too high in the banquet room, the awkward looks of other colleagues too embarrassed to let loose in front of people they worked with. Why didn’t you tell me this story before? Urmila asked, and Hm. just shook his head and kissed her, and that night, for the first time in nearly a year, he made love to her.
While he grunted and sweated on top of her, and while she kissed him on his shoulders and his chest, he told himself that this was all strange and wonderful. He had told her lies and she had believed them. He sweated, he sped up, he let go of all tethers of his civility. She said his name out loud in disbelief.
“What’s happened to you?” she asked between breaths. “I love it!”
Hm. closed his eyes. He loved it, too.
The dhobi came to wash their clothes on Sunday, because that was the day he always came. Urmila collected her laundry and called out to Hm. “Hey, the dhobi’s here.” Hm. handed over his shirts and trousers and underwear and socks, too.
After breakfast, while the dhobi rinsed and slapped out on the balcony, Hm. took a seat on the couch. He put his naked feet up on the marble table. Sharav was on the carpet with his crayons, drawing into a colouring book.
“Hey,” Urmila tapped Hm. “Your sock,” she said. “The Petr and Wallace. Did you find the other one?”
“It’s… It’s still at work. I told you that already.”
“It’s still at work?”
“Of course,” Hm. said, and he noticed that despite his best efforts, his voice suddenly grew agitated and combative. “Why don’t you believe me? It’s under my desk at work.”
“Oh,” she said. “You didn’t bring it back?”
“It’s just a sock, Urmi.”
“Yes, but it was really expensive… I hope you didn’t lose it, Love. I bought it for your birthday.”
“It was just a birthday!” Hm. shouted. He sprang his feet off the table. “Why does it matter? I wear all the same clothes every day. Same type of shirt. Same colour suit. Same shoes. Same hairstyle. Same everything. Just let me have my socks my way, okay? I’ll wear whatever socks I want.”
Hm. was breathing hard, and when he stopped speaking, he realised that everything else had stopped around him, too. Sharav’s toy truck had halted mid-vroom on the carpet. The dhobi was silent out in the balcony. Urmila, now stiff and frozen, stared at him.
She waited for him to regain a steady breath before she spoke. “Why are you acting so strange? You can wear your socks any way you want. I’m not stopping you.”
She relaxed her shoulders, stepped closer to Hm., and gently caressed his arm.
“Is everything okay? Is there… Is there something wrong at work?”
Her touch soothed him down a little. “Nothing,” he said. “I’m just not in the mood for this, Urmi. That Frankfurt trip is coming up… Lots of planning left to do, you know. Just a little stressed, that’s all.”
“Stress with who? The boss? That Simrin in the office you keep talking about?”
“Sim—who? How dare you? I don’t keep talking about her. There’s nothing wrong with her.”
“Okay,” Urmila sighed and backed away.
“She’s fine,” Hm. said. “You know, she doesn’t bother me like this at all. She doesn’t care about what socks I’m wearing or anything. It’s perfect.”
Urmila left the question hanging in the air, soaking over Hm., like the Sunday laundry hung over the balcony ledge. But that one sock was still missing.
Hm. stayed closed inside his office on Monday, alone. He cranked up the air-conditioner and turned off the large white light. It was an overcast day early on, but by afternoon the clouds and smog cleared up. Form the window behind him, the room soon bathed in warm sunlight, which Hm. enjoyed. He read reports emailed to him by colleagues who worked down the hall and he responded to them electronically, and he felt no need or desire to speak to anyone face to face. None of this was unusual.
But then, sometime around 2 PM, he heard a knock on his door, and the unexpected sound made him cringe.
“Hello, Sir,” the door opened and a slim, young woman peeked in.
It was Simrin. The real Simrin.
“Oh, yes,” Hm. coughed. “Come in… Come in.”
She entered and smiled and spoke quickly.
“Hello, Sir,” she said. She had on a tight-fitting yellow T-shirt and wore spectacles over her greenish eyes. “I’m Simrin Makhania, from KXU. We’re working on the new campaign with you.”
“Yes, of course, of course,” Hm. said. He shifted his laptop out of the way and pointed to the chair opposite him, motioning her to take a seat. “Yes, I’ve seen you around. Is there anything with the new project you wanted to discuss?”
She waved her hand away and didn’t come any closer. Even from the distance, Hm. could smell a fruity, sharp scent from her, as if she had applied an unnecessary amount of fragrant hand-sanitiser. “No, Sir,” she said. “I just wanted to say that… that… I just got a phone call for you… In my cubicle…”
“For me?” Hm. asked.
“Yes, for you, Sir. It was some woman. Asking for you.”
She had a high-pitched voice. Higher-pitched than Urmila. She sounded younger, more energetic.
Hm. was looking directly at her, but he was seeing himself, or seeing how she saw him. He knew she could see the grey matte of hair on his head. She could see his weathered eyes.
“But this woman knew my name. She asked for you, first, but then she kept asking me if I’m Simrin. She said something about Frankfurt? She asked that multiple times. She sounded… She sounded like she was sobbing, Sir. Then she asked for you again.”
“Who...?” Hm. gulped and turned away.
“So, I looked up your office number on the exchange, and asked her to hold, but she cut the line.”
“That’s really strange.”
“I don’t know how she got my number, Sir. Or how she knew who I was.”
“Hmm… Yeah. That’s really strange.” Hm. repeated.
There were a few seconds of silence between them. Simrin fidgeted on her feet and took a step back. “Well, anyways,” she said. “Just wanted to let you know. I’ll be… I’ll be heading back to work.”
And Hm. could only watch her leave. “Okay, okay, thanks.”
In the backseat of the car that evening, Hm. clicked on the button to slide down the window on his side. It was a warm evening. Hm. told the driver to turn the A/C off.
He was now certain that Urmila suspected him. She suspected that he and this young woman had become friends, that they went shopping together, that they probably laughed at each other’s jokes, that sometime in the lost hours between work and home—and Hm. hadn’t figured out all the logistics of this imaginary affair yet—they found time to be private, to be alone.
What would Urmila do? Hm. wondered. “What would she do?” he whispered out loud to himself in the back seat. “She would never leave me, would she?” She still loved him, he knew. She didn’t need to say so; he could just sense it. Her love was in the small things. The extra cushion she laid behind him when he slumped on the couch. The back rubs he got in bed after a difficult day at work. The expensive gifts she managed to procure despite scarce availability in the country.
But what was there within him to be loved, he wondered? “Why, Urmila?” he asked nobody. She had always been more open-minded and adventurous, but his life provided her with no such adventure. He worked and he ate and he slept, and on Sundays he propped his legs on the table in front of the couch and watched National Geographic, and he occasionally spoke to their son but often ignored him, and he wore the same clothes every day. They never went to holidays anymore or tried out new restaurants, and his frigidity rarely thawed next to her in the bedroom. Maybe it was less love, then, and more habit.
Hm. could barely stand a sense of his own, dull self before this recent spark. Before the lost sock, before he had begun to lie to her, before that imagined work trip to Frankfurt with Simrin, before his affair. There was some unpredictability now, a tangent from his life’s scheduled programming.
He would be home in half an hour, and he didn’t know what to expect from her. He felt the skin on his back tingle.
Urmila and Sharav were not in the playground when he returned. They were not in the lobby, and he didn’t see them around the elevator.
When he unlocked the door to their apartment, Urmila had already ushered Sharav into his room. She stood there, dead centre in the living room between the couch and the television, composed while surrounded by walls of crooked and unhinged photo frames. The room was only half-bathed in light, from the tube-light in the kitchen. Behind her was Sharav’s toy bucket, spilled so all the little action figures and Legos had scattered out on the carpet. The only sound was soft, childish conversation from the TV in Sharav’s bedroom, which Hm. recognised as his son’s favourite puppy-police cartoon show.
“Hello,” Hm. said.
“When is your trip to Frankfurt?”
“I called at your work. I spoke to Tripathi. And one of the secretaries. And even to that girlfriend of yours. There’s no trip to Frankfurt, is there?”
She was rarely ever angry, his wife, rarely allowed outside incidents to disturb her inner peace. Even after the toughest days at work, even after her father’s sudden stroke, Hm. had seen how she always managed to find something to uplift her mood. It didn’t take much: a TV comedy; a board-game with Sharav; a drink with her friends. It was one of the things he admired most about her. She was in charge of her own mood.
Here, breathing evenly in front of him, the mood was different. But she was still in charge. Her voice didn’t waver, or crack, or inflect.
“Who are you going with? Is it just you and her?”
While she remained upright, looking taller with her shoulders hunched up, Hm. felt his knees buckle, as if the weight of conjuring up a new lie was physically pushing him down into the floor.
“No, no,” he said. “They didn’t speak of Frankfurt because it’s a surprise, Urmi! You didn’t speak to anyone at upper management, did you? No, no, it’s an upper management surprise for the rest of the employees. We’re all going. 39 members from Jepal and KXU.”
“It’s a surprise?” Urmila folded her arms together.
“Yes, yes. The Boss Man, you know, he’s very superstitious. I told you that before, didn’t I? He wouldn’t dare share any news like this before the right time. He was just waiting for Janmashtami. It’s going to be a Janmashtami surprise.”
“A Janmashtami surprise?”
“Yes, yes.” His words were ribbing and fighting to squeeze out of his mouth rapidly, as if there were a thousand more little stories that needed to be told. “He’s a big Krishna bhakt, so he chose Janmashtami. Boss Man keeps a fast for Krishna every Wednesday and shows up to office wearing white kurta-pyjama. Can you believe it? While the rest of us are in suits! It’s so ridiculous. He told me… He told me once that it was all from his childhood. When his his grandmother had this dream about a daayan who cursed her, yes, cursed her and said that his whole gene pool will be cursed.”
“A cursed gene pool?”
“Yes, yes, cursed so that all of her descendants will be two people at once, Urmila. You know, like a schizophrenic duality?” As he spoke, Hm. thought about Boss Man’s grandmother, and he could only picture her by imagining his own Nani, whom he barely knew, even as she lived to her late 80s. She had a round and slightly off-coloured face that looked like a fresh fruit, and she only spoke in philosophical aphorisms like, Son, only those who sweep their own house will find themselves in a clean neighbourhood. Yes, yes, this was Boss Man’s grandmother now, the one who got visited by the daayan, the one with the schizophrenic curse.
“A duality?” Urmila asked.
“Yes. And now he worries that he must do something special for Janmashtami every year. Something big. Like this Frankfurt announcement.”
“No,” Urmila’s voice was still level, still in control. “It is you with this strange duality. It is you who is being two people at once.”
“Are you having an affair with that girl?”
And there it was, the question, it was out there now, retched out into the humid air between them.
He imagined himself with Simrin, breathing in vapours of her fruity hand-sanitiser, kissing her thin lips, laughing when their teeth rubbed against each other.
“Yes,” he said.
Urmila came at him swiftly, and with the full force of the unsaid frictions between them, the years of subtle decalages where something remained a little uneven and offset, of her suppressed rage, of her suspicions of his infidelity, she gave him a full-palmed slap on his cheek.
It stung Hm. enough for him to stagger back a few feet. But more than anything, it electrified him, as if she had gotten his dormant nervous system buzzing again. That feeling, that fuming within him… yes, he knew what it was. It was anger. He was angry at her. He was mad. She had struck him. How dare she strike him?
And then, she began to sob, as if feeling the pain of her own aggression.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay,” Hm. found himself saying. “Simrin likes to slap me, too. But those feel nicer.”
Urmila ran up to him again and this time swung her right foot between his legs, hard vertically up into his groin, so hard that it made him yelp in a siren-like sound, a new moan he had never made before. A sound he didn’t know he had within him.
Reacting with pure instinct, Hm. pushed her with both his hands on her chest. She stumbled back, and in doing so, she tripped over something—one of Sharav’s toy trucks—and she lost her footing, and she fell hard with a thump, and the side of her head banged against the thick, marble table, and them she slumped down to the floor without a sound.
Hm. crouched down to his knees. She was bleeding from the side of her head. Blood flowed out freely, heedlessly, adding a deeper, damp shade of red to their red carpet.
Hm. called her name, and shook her shoulders, and she didn’t move, and he checked her pulse, and he called her name again, and then he knew she was dead.
Hm. dialled the emergency number. A gruff, male voice picked up on the other line, and it said “Hello” to Hm. in a slow drone, as if it had handled so many serious incidents of police activity that it had simply been lulled into boredom.
“My wife is on the carpet,” Hm. said.
“Uh-huh,” said the voice.
“She’s dead, I think.”
“I killed her. It’s all over the carpet now.”
“I killed her.”
Hm. gave the voice his full address, hung up the phone, and sat down next to Urmila’s corpse.
Sharav was awake. Or, Hm. presumed, he had been awake the whole time and only now braved peeking out of his room. Hm. got to his feet and walked up to Sharav’s bedroom door, blocking his son’s line of sight.
“Hello, beta,” Hm. said.
“Daddy… Where’s Mummy?”
“Go back, beta,” Hm. said. He put a gentle arm on Sharav’s back and led him inside. Sharav complied and backtracked. His room was dark except for the manic glow of the TV, playing cartoons. Hm. had never been happy about Urmila allowing their son to watch TV by himself. Sharav trotted ahead and sat back on his single bed, facing Hm. Hm. folded his feet and sat down on the floor.
Like Urmila, Sharav’s living space was an anarchic mess, too. There were action figures lying around in every corner, and more little toy cars, and a hospital playset, and piles of tiny clothes on all four corners rising up in tiny mounds.
“Where’s Mummy?” Sharav asked again. He had large, round eyes, like his mother’s.
“Don’t worry, beta,” Hm. said. “You tell me—did you have dinner?”
“What were you doing in here?”
Sharav shrugged his shoulders. “Watching cartoons,” he said. “Playing Spider-Bat.”
“What did Spider-Bat do today?”
“Today…” Sharav’s voice lightened up as he began to imagine. “Today, he just stayed at home. He stayed at home and watched TV with me.”
“Oh really?” Hm. said, and he looked around the room again, wondering if he should begin teaching his son about keeping things a little tidier, to fold his clothes and stack them up in a neat pile. To keep all his toys back in the bucket when he was done playing.
Among the mound of clothes on the far-left corner, Hm. noticed, were a few items of his old laundry. White shirts. Black trousers. Colourful socks. Maybe the dhobi, or Urmila, by mistake, had left them in here.
And then there was a knock on the apartment door, and Hm. knew that the police had arrived. He told Sharav to wait in his room and went out to greet them. When they asked Hm. what happened, he told them that he killed his wife. It felt good to repeat the incident in exacting detail; it was the truth.