THE DARK ABODE
“You are a fairy without wings.”
The very first sentence of the e-mail made Kuki blush. Getting soothing e-mails embellished with romantic poems had become routine for her; the e-mails seemed to mark the exchange of feelings between two teenaged lovebirds separated by distance. He had written, “You are a fairy without wings. But that does not deter you from trying to break free of all your shackles. If somebody were to give you wings, would you come and join me here?”
Kuki would read the e-mail umpteen times to discover and rediscover the sense of every single word and try to experience them with the imagination of a poet, blushing shyly all the while. It was as if she had become a dreamy and bubbly teenager in these last few days. Her outlook seemed to have become pure and fresh and she seemed to have returned to her sensational sweet sixteen again.
Kuki had never been into writing poetry; nor was he, really. Yet each of his letters was poetic and tasteful. While writing poetry, he would often slip into the realm of prose and vice-versa with remarkable spontaneity.
Kuki’s heart had initially been reluctant to heed the invitation and she remembered the first letter she had written, “My body is too frail for its moods. My ageing flesh follows the demands and dictates of family life. My weary senses return to my courtyard seeking warmth among my kids. Now my wings no longer have their old charisma that I will fly in response to your call. There is no longer that endless, expansive, azure sky for me, nor its grand brilliance that would absorb me inside its bosom. But you shot the cupid’s arrow and a thrill rippled through my body, mesmerizing me; and the music of the unforgotten years sounded once again in my soul.”
"Why are you so lonely? Perhaps you do not know. It was when you entered my life that I first began to dream. I have enjoyed many women indiscriminately. I have been sincerely insincere with them. I was like a butterfly passionately addicted to pleasure, sucking the juice of flowers and leaving them stunned and bewildered only to hop on to other flowers. But it was you who made me realize what love was. Do you know what I pray for? I pray I can remain stuck like a pollen grain to your petal-feet, listening to your anklet chimes.”
Aniket, her husband, used to write such gratifying lines for Kuki when she was sixteen or seventeen. “I would be blessed to adorn your feet.” How old was Aniket then? Twenty, perhaps twenty-one. Time had played its all too familiar but never-welcome tricks and had now left its mark on the color of his hair and the wrinkles on Kuki’s body. Youth had been left behind somewhere far away near the distant horizon. And love? It was as if love has been long buried under the apple cart of life, condemned to a monotonous and never-ending treadmill. Her dreams and aspirations lay hidden beneath the rubble of the dream-house of immortal romance that she had once built so enthusiastically.
Safiq was taking great pains to convince Kuki that he was not flirting with her. His love was sincere and intense and not a fleeting and ephemeral one. He would sometimes send her a sketch drawn from his imagination or some favorite quotations of his. Quoting Einstein, he had once written, “Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love.”
Slowly and without any reason whatsoever, this person she had never met had somehow begun to occupy a corner of her heart, and perhaps, of her subconscious mind, too. It puzzled her immensely, though; how could a man love someone so intensely without ever having even seen her? What was the motive? How was this possible? She had even raised this question once, so intrigued had she been by the question.
Apt came the unique and flattering reply. “Who told you I have not seen you? Look—aren’t you exactly like this?” The sketch sent as an attachment with the mail was somehow ‘Kuki’ for this man. The sketch revealed that he had spent these last few days bringing his imagination to life, Kuki thought.
How eccentric these artists were!
The girl in the sketch had locks of hair hanging down to her shoulder. Emotions of trust and anxiety were playing hide-and-seek on her face. A nubile nymphet oozing youth, she was draped in an almost transparent fabric clinging to her every curvaceous contour, revealing more then it was hiding, leaving nothing to the imagination. A creeper wound its way round her waist and her navel was tinged with a shade of topaz. Kuki kept looking at the sketch and tried to find herself in it. Which part of her body did the sketch resemble most? The dark almond shaped eyes? The aquiline neck? The rotund bust? The navel? No, perhaps the resemblance lay in the coy smile. It was that smile that defined his perceptions of her. How could Kuki have concealed it within herself?
Plagued by orthodox and conservative thoughts, she would retreat a step even as she moved two steps towards that man. No, Kuki had never engrossed herself in amorous love. The reason for her fear and suspicion was beyond her comprehension. Perhaps the man had read her thoughts much earlier; that was perhaps why he had tried to purge her doubts and dilemmas. “Listen, we must transcend the petty considerations of caste, religion and nationality. Never allow them a place in your heart.”
But Kuki found it impossible to ignore her age-old values ingrained so deeply within herself. It was not as if she had never met a Muslim. When she was a child, they had lived in a house that was adjacent to a Muslim colony. She had also had a few Muslim friends at school. She used to visit their houses as well. Shabnam came from a prosperous family. Their house was well decorated, with manicured lawns and many different varieties of roses in their garden, all of which spoke highly of their status. They had a Doberman whom Kuki was very scared of. Sitting under a tree in the garden, Shabnam would tell Kuki stories about Allah.
Then there was Latifa, another friend of Kuki’s. In sharp contrast to Shabnam, Latifa’s family lived in a gloomy, muddy and filthy house in very unhygienic surroundings somewhere deep inside the colony. A foul smell would emanate from their yard; it was always flecked with droppings of goats and hens, and sometimes, even feces of children. Kuki could never invite them to her home. She would steer off topic even if they expressed their desire to visit her at home. They had, of course, come to her house a few times, but her mother would always grumble after they left. Angry, she would start throwing the utensils this way and that with a resounding crash; she would start washing the bed-sheets as soon as they had left. Kuki had to wash in the backyard the utensils in which she served food to her friends. As the mattresses could not be washed, they were sanctified with sprinkles of holy water from the Ganga. Kuki used to do all this out of fear of getting a beating; she herself had never considered Muslims untouchable.
True, Kuki hadn’t ever considered them untouchable; but wasn’t there a faint ray of mistrust concealed somewhere inside her? This was something more than any personal vendetta; there was no personal reason behind her mistrust of Muslims.
She was what her circumstances, upbringing and environment had made her. The prejudices had seeped into her psyche. She couldn’t help it. As a child she had often heard elders say, “Don’t trust even a dead Muslim.” She had never analyzed or questioned this stance. She had accepted such dictums at face value. Like so many other things. Although the inhabitants of that ‘colony’ were not looked upon as creatures from some other planet, they were still never considered as one of them. It was as if, to them, the Muslim ‘colony’ was a miniature Pakistan!
He was from Pakistan. Kuki had never imagined that she would someday fall so intensely in love with a Pakistani. She found it impossible to refuse his passionate overtures. On the contrary, she would spend hour after starry-eyed hour poring over his e-mails with the enthusiasm and curiosity of a teenager; each time she re-read his messages, she discovered new meanings in them—it was as if she had never read them before. If she took too long to reply, she would find a passionate letter, choked with emotion, waiting for her in her inbox the next morning. He wanted to lie down with his head in her lap and weep, he would write.
“Each night my visions wander far,
To places I cannot travel to;
And there they mingle with your thoughts
In a lovers’ rendezvous”
Kuki would send him a list of all the household chores she had to manage and earnestly plead with him not to be so restless over the slightest of delays on her part in replying to his e-mails. But she herself would become listless as she ran through his letters. He once wrote in desperation, “I know I can never visit India, nor can you come to me here in Pakistan. The relationship between the two countries, the visa problem and so many different restrictions will keep us separated. We may not be able to even see each other; yet, if you so agree, we can belong to one another till death overtakes us. But please never mope over the fact that you are a Hindu, and I, a Muslim, or that you are an Indian, and I, a Pakistani.”
She had read Virginia Woolf: “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” But the word, ‘Pakistani’ was synonymous with ‘terrorist’ for her. A slew of questions disturbed her. What if her husband and children were to discover this secret online affair? What if her son were to ask, “Mama, how dare you love a Pakistani?” Her son, her own flesh and blood, was no less than a fundamentalist. The very thought of Muslims made his blood boil. The younger one was more gentle. He loved her very much; so, perhaps he would sit by her and say “You don’t know, mama; all Pakistanis are terrorists. You have not seen the movie, ‘XYZ’”. What would Kuki say, then?
The man offered namaz only once in a while; nor was he very fastidious about observing Roza during Ramzan. On Id-ul-Fitre he preferred a quiet nap; instead of going to the Idgah, he would sleep quietly at home. He believed in Allah, of course, but he called himself a kafir.
He would bombard Kuki with child-like inquisitive queries in every letter of his. She tried to explain things to him the way she did to her children; she would narrate to him many tales from Hindu mythology, the Upanishads in particular. He would be overwhelmed by each tale; he said there was a fascinating and well-defined philosophy in Hindu mythology—something that the Quran lacked. The Quran spoke only of social commitment; its aim was to build a healthy society, he said.
Whenever she woke up early in her childhood, Kuki would hear the “Allah Ho Akbar” cry floating in from the mosque. One could not hear bhajans from the Hindu temples, though. The mosque in their town would wake up at dawn while the temple was still wrapped in sleep. Her younger sister couldn't help but frown each time she was disturbed in her sleep by the cacophony blasting through the loudspeakers of the mosque around the corner; she would grumble, “Is Allah deaf? Why do they call so loudly?”
Kuki had once ventured into the mosque with Shabnam. Shabnam took her to every nook and corner of the mosque. Kuki was ten or eleven then. Although her eyes were looking for a deity in that big vacant room, she didn’t dare ask Shabnam about it; she was engulfed with some strange fear. She was petrified that someone would recognize her and ask, “Hey, you’re a Hindu child; how dare you come inside?” She ran out of the mosque when she couldn’t bear it any longer. And she had never visited a mosque since then. It was a vacuum for her; her notion of what a mosque was really like was as vague as her notion of Islam.
Of course, she knew that there was no idol-worship in Islam and had even made offerings once at the dargah of Moinuddin Chisti; yet the absence of a deity in the dark interiors filled her own heart with an unusual emptiness. Kuki would often make fun of Hinduism. We have created numerous gods for our endless desires, for birth, death, wealth, wisdom, everything one could think of. Yet her heart looked for an idol where no idol was there. The human mind searched for something concrete and tangible. God was formless, attributeless and impossible to define, she knew. She knew God was nothingness yet omnipresent, but her heart could still not accept the empty chamber.
But did love care for religion? The true religion of love was to tread the untrodden path. It was as if he had totally mesmerized Kuki.
“Each passing day makes me love even more and more,” he had once written. Today, more than yesterday, and tomorrow, more than today.” Kuki also felt that there was a freshness in their love, a freshness that refused to fade away or become stale with the passage of time. And she was utterly fascinated by this man’s absolute frankness and candor.
He had revealed everything about himself, even the darkest of his sins, in his very first letter—he had two wives and four children. His first wife lived in the village and did not have any sexual relations with him now. But her two daughters stayed with him in town and were pursuing their higher studies. His second wife, incidentally, had been his student. He had had sexual relations with her before their marriage. He had also had a long-term relationship with Linda Johnson, an American girl, who had clued him into the intricacies of sex. But he was no longer in touch with her.
Kuki had read this man’s life story the way she read the newspapers. “A complete pervert!” His ‘love’ was like M F Hussain’s love for Madhuri—it was not her cup of tea, she had thought.
“Perversion goes hand in hand with genius; be it Einstein or Flaubert, it boosts creativity”. This was the only consolation for her. While the man’s honest and spontaneous ramblings impressed Kuki, his habit of going astray had filled her with utter disdain and contempt.
After reading his letters, Kuki became curious about the nikah of Muslims. Of course, she knew a Muslim man could marry four times. She had once quizzed Professor Siddiqui to satisfy her curiosity. He cited several references from the Quran and tried to explain things to her. “Look madam. The Quran doesn’t encourage four marriages in the sense you look at it. The law was actually made to protect women and the destitute. Many men die on the battlefield. The system of polygamy was devised to protect widows and orphans and to save them from harassment.”
Kuki felt a sense of relief after hearing Professor Siddiqui’s analysis, but the feeling was short-lived. The man who loved her had not married a second time to save some helpless woman! And what of his relationship with Linda Johnson? Yet, Kuki couldn’t forget his love for her. She felt as if no one had ever given her so much in her entire life.
Kuki was gradually drifting away from her own usual domestic self. She felt as if she was living in a dream world where there was no one else apart from the two of them. She lost interest in devising innovative delicacies for her children; nor could she apply her mind to the little problems Aniket came up with. The plants, unwatered, began to wither away.
The garden had stopped smiling in delight; with their moth-eaten petals, the flowers sat gloomily, looking emaciated. Portions of the lawn had become bald, rooms had been smutted with spider webs, and a patina of dust had gathered on the idols placed on the shelves. Taking advantage of her absent-mindedness, the housemaid was skipping her work. Her domestic set-up was moving through a period of chaos. But where was she?
She became obsessed with sitting in front of the computer and responding to the call of love. She was trying to provide shape to all that remained unexpressed within her. And to her surprise, even after saying so much everyday, new thoughts would blossom inside her like an endlessly meandering stream.
They had decided to have their conversation at three levels.
The first one was about the common man’s world; the second was ethereal love; and the third one related to sensual love. In the course of this conversation, Kuki mastered several words she had never been able to use earlier. After her children had left for school and college, and Aniket, for work, she would spend hours on the computer, writing letters to this man.
She would be very upset whenever she heard of any strains in the relations between India and Pakistan. The prospect of a war between these countries frightened her immensely. Even the thought that her children and husband were all together here, her parents, siblings, relatives, home, everything was here, was not of much consolation to her. Perhaps everything would be destroyed by a bomb. She felt as if her heart was beating at some unseen place in Pakistan and would suddenly stop with the dropping of a bomb, leaving behind a pool of blood. Her world would come crashing down …
Kuki often felt that India and Pakistan should not have been two different nations at all. What was the need to divide them and leave them fighting forever? Kuki had never seen Kashmir. But what could there possibly be in Kashmir that the two countries had been fighting ever over it as if she was a beautiful damsel? Her blood would curdle whenever she heard of terrorist activities in Kashmir. Shocked by the brutality of those people, she had decided Pakistan was a heartless country. Like Sparta, the country had been manufacturing militants masquerading as jehadis. But all her notions changed after she came to know him. She realized there were still some people with compassion and intelligence amidst the oppressive ambience created by the military junta.
Aniket and Kuki were returning from their visit to a hill-station. As they could not get reservations they had to wait in Delhi for three more days. While visiting various places, they had entered the Dhumimal art gallery. Kuki was fond of art, but Aniket was a very different person. Modern painting, like modern poetry, was obscure to him. He felt suffocated in the serene ambience of the gallery and wanted to go outside for a smoke. Kuki was now left alone with her senses. As she scanned through each painting hanging on the wall, one painting in particular held her eyes. There was a strange loneliness written all over the painting. She felt as if someone had held her hand and dragged her down some unfamiliar street of an unknown city to a very lonely man. A man whose anguish was so acute that it was yet to find expression in words. The tiny letters said, ‘Alienation, oil-on-canvas, 191 X 143cms, Safiq Mohammed, published by Pakistani Art Forum, Lahore.’
Kuki did not have enough money to buy the painting. Yet she felt life would lose all meaning for her if she could not buy it. Rich people never understood painting, yet they would buy paintings to show their wealth off, she thought. She was a connoisseur of art, but could not afford to buy paintings. She couldn’t concentrate on any other painting that day; she kept returning to that one canvas. The man at the counter asked, “Madam, we can get a print of the painting; would you like one?”
Kuki had been delighted. She had returned with the print and brochure. She could get Safiq Mohammed’s e-mail id from the brochure. Then she had knocked on the door of Safiq Mohammed’s consciousness. She had never imagined that someone eager for her would say, “Each night my vision wanders to a place I can’t travel to.”
“Why can’t you come to India?” Kuki asked him. “Restrictions on travel between the two countries have been relaxed now. Besides, you are an artist. You are famous for ‘Alienation’.” Who will stand in your way? If Sheema Kermani’s troupe can perform in Kolkata, if the Pakistani cricket team can come and play in Indian cities, why can’t you come to India?”
He tried to evade the question, and instead, diverted Kuki’s mind to a love poem. Replete with effusive sentimentality. He was as much outspoken as he was emotional in writing the poem. As if he had been trying to find an answer to that question, “If Sheema Kermani’s troupe can perform in Kolkata, if the Pakistani cricket team can come and play in Indian cities, why can’t you come to India?” One day he wrote a reply of sorts, “The whole world is a stage. Never think that India and Pakistan constitute the entire world. There are so many other places in the world where we can move freely and chat for hours and where I can hum poems close to your ears under the moonlight. One room, one bed—that’s all we need to dissolve all barriers and barbed-wire fences. It is my dream that someday I will take you to a place like that. “This man is tempting me with a dream again,” thought Kuki. He began to tempt her with a dream, and that, at a time when her heart craved freedom from the monotonous letter writing, from an unresolved mystery! Yes, the world was vast, big and wide…besides, how much space did two people need? As Kuki wove such dreams, the man offered her a strange proposal. “You know, I wish to sketch the most priceless painting of my life with your love. Come close to me, become my skin, my self, my world, and bless me with the gift of fatherhood.”
Kuki was both startled and offended by the man’s candid proposal but she also felt a shiver of excitement. An invitation beckoned her from a distance. As if she was a goddess, and a devotee from some remote place was coming to worship her. She felt restless, but whom could she confide in? There was no one at all. Yet she wished she could speak to someone; she wished she could tell someone that there was a man she felt like writing poetry for. An unknown fear also plagued her. The gentle breeze kissed her forehead and wafted by, sending a shiver down her spine and inducing a feeling at once unfamiliar and so well known.
“I am in this prison of a soul that I have created for myself dwelling over my unrequited love for you." Finally she wrote, “Ok, I am more than willing to come to you with all my love and dedication and bless you with fatherhood. If I, me, my body, can be the canvas for your priceless painting, I am ready and I am looking forward to your most beautiful creation after ‘Alienation’.”
Kuki’s consent delighted him. He wrote, in his next letter, “You are the beacon of my life, new dawn in my existence. You came into my life, and I began to see life anew. I’ll sketch the most priceless painting of my life with your love. I’ll tie your name with mine. As you are the new morning of my life, you won’t be Kuki any longer, but Rokshana. I want to introduce you to the whole world as Rokshana.”
Kuki felt numb. Her whole world seemed to be crumbling into dust at her feet. The skies suddenly looked grey and gloomy, the rustling leaves, dead, and the chirpy birds, silent; she became very pensive. She was not herself any longer. She was somebody else. Then who was she till today? Whom did the man love? Kuki? Or Rokshana? But Kuki had never wanted to marry him. She had desired only love. Unconditional love. Why such a condition, then? Why ‘Rokshana’ instead of ‘Kuki’? Who was this Rokshana? From where had she suddenly surfaced? Where had she remained hidden all these years? Within the recesses of his wild imagination, or in the pages of the Quran? The very thought sent a shudder down her spine. “Am I being selfish? Is it selfish to want to preserve oneself, one’s own identity?”
Look at me, feel me in my wholeness, experience me as I am. Don‘t try to transform me. Let me be myself. Don't push me into oblivion. Accept me as what I am. Accept me with my wrinkles, my tokens of age, the traces of my beauty, my innocence, my arrogance. Accept me as I am…Do not try to transform me. Tell, whom do you want—the complete Kuki or the new Rokshana?
Kuki became restless. Her otherwise nimble fingers seemed reluctant to move over the keyboard. Her words refused to find shape; she groped in darkness for the right letters, the right words for her emotions, but everything remained as formless and shapeless and vague as ever. After much effort, Kuki managed to jot down everything she wanted to say. A wave of relief swept over her. She wished to fly like a bird. She wanted to return to her threshold and her garden. The rose leaves had shriveled up. The buds on the dahlia plant refused to blossom; those wild plants looked pale behind the grass. Smut had piled up in the corners of the house. Dust gathered on the furniture. Sarees lay in a mess in the cupboard. A peepal plant had sent down roots beside the bathroom window. Kuki had been far away from her domestic self for too long. It was time for her to return to it once again.
Kuki tried to arrange everything neatly in her house. She chatted heartily with the plants in the garden, and they also smiled at her new look. She finished all her household chores that afternoon. Prepared delicacies for everybody. Her house began to feel complete with broad smiles lighting up every face.
Yet, a Rokshana still writhed somewhere in Kuki’s consciousness. She could not bring herself to send the letter she had written. There was no mail for her either; she hadn’t got anything after that day. The inbox showed—“You have zero unread mail.” Yet her heart would pound heavily; the man would be desperately searching through his mailbox everyday. Perhaps he would think something dreadful had happened to her. She would often have this funny feeling at the oddest of hours that the man would come and knock on her door, or would stand by the window and smoke cigarette after cigarette, desperate to meet her.
Kuki sat once again in front of the blank monitor... She sat with her listless fingers on the keyboard. Perhaps, her fingers would now come to life. Perhaps she would write now: “Hey, look, I have returned again to your world. I am Rokshana, not Kuki. But what is there in a name? It is meaningless. I will give you fatherhood. You can now start the most priceless painting of your life.” Kuki’s fingers became animated, but she reclined into silence after a few lines. She opened the old letter in which she had expressed her desire to be Kuki and only Kuki. But a sense of emptiness kept her gazing at the lifeless and now useless computer.
What was her next course of action to be? Was she ready to relinquish her own identity and start afresh, or was it best for her to find solace in her very own small paradise, her sweet home?
What about her love, then? The love she had nurtured in her breast all these days? Was it false? What about her hopes, her dreams, her despair? Could she possibly survive without the love of that man?
On one hand, there was Aniket and his old, sweet and stable world with its lost charm; on the other, there was Safiq and his alluring, exciting new world. Both had stretched their hands out towards her. Which one she would embrace?
What had she hoped to find? she wondered. These were the things men lived by, the forms of their spirit, of their culture, of their enjoyment. She had seen nothing else anywhere for many years.
She remained immersed in her pensive introspection; her body was still as a statue. It was time for her to move…But in which direction was she to move? Experience and instinct battled ferociously inside her.
She had felt her fingers raring to run over the keyboard. But she remained motionless. All of a sudden a thought blazed through her mind. Nuni. Yes, it was Julius Caesar who had given the name ‘Nuni’ to his beloved Cleopatra. Love encompasses every obsession; one can even feel like giving a new name to that very special person and calling her by that name. What was she so worried about? Why should the fact that someone wanted to call her by a special name give rise to such a dilemma and such hair-splitting? Why was she getting so upset? It was a kind of rebirth for her.
Kuki started on her third e-mail. “I am ready to live my lovely life with you, as your beloved. You can call me by any name you want to.”
Sarojini Sahoo is an Indian feminist writer who has received the Orissa Sahitya Academy Award, the Jhankar Award, the Bhubaneswar Book Fair Award and the Prajatantra Award. Born in 1956 in Dhenkanal in the Orissa state of India, she holds an MA and PhD in Oriya Literature. She teaches college in Belpahar, Jharsuguda, Orissa.
The author of seven novels and nine collections of short stories, Sarojini Sahoo’s fiction has been translated from Oriya into Bengali, English and French. She has been acclaimed for breaking sexual and ethnic taboos in India, reaching a large audience there and in neighboring Bangladesh. Her novel Gambhiri Ghara became a cult classic in Oriya literature when it appeared in 2005. A Bengali translation, under the title Mithya Gerosthali, was published in Dhaka in 2007. A French translation is due out from Editions Ecriture, Paris.
The first chapter of Gambhiri Ghara appears here for the first time in English, under the title The Dark Abode. It is translated from the Oriya by Mahendra Dash.
Sarojini Sahoo maintains the blog Sense & Sensuality.