Short Story- Second Prize: An Appetite for Drama

Highlights: 
What’s a South Indian wedding without drama? But here, an actor lands a special role, that of an audience! This is a tale of karma and a trying relationship

As sunlight ripped through the awning of the dark sky, he tracked her movements like he was watching a tennis player as she scurried about the kitchen. She burnt her hand on the stove and stained her excessively patterned nightie with milk as her thick, faux coffee-brown hair framed her face like a lion’s rumpled mane. Her skin remained impressively taut, but it was only a matter of time before the filling bags tugging at her eyes and the paving of thin lines polluted their carefully landscaped appeal.

She did not take care of herself like she used to. She had worn bright-red lipstick and pinstriped trousers on the first day that they had met at a Café Coffee Day located in the relatively quiet Ispahani Mall. “You are a banker,” he had half-stated, half-questioned, as he had attempted to initiate a conversation with this intriguing, seemingly progressive young woman. “By day,” she had answered, with a deliberate flutter of her lashes and a crooked smile.

 

The four women Arun had met until then on the insistence of his overbearing, traditional mother wore a uniform scent of blooming jasmine and kanakambaram flowers, blinding silk sheen, and pained mock-coy expressions. Each of these times, he was prepared and bored in equal measure. All contenders subsequently faded into obscurity. But with Nikhila, he was caught off guard and pleasantly surprised. He could not muster his wits soon enough to prod but fortunately, she volunteered, “I am also an actor.”

When his face did not assume any alterations, she continued with a touch of nervousness. “Not in the big Bollywood way, of course, just locally, at the Amrit Theatre in Mylapore. It’s small, but on some days, we draw quite a crowd.” She performed a gesture of fending off admirers while he sputtered, “Oh! That’s cool,” into his burning-hot coffee. “You should come, see me in action sometime,” she gurgled. “I will,” he offered sincerely, losing himself to a  fantasy of her in a spandex superwoman suit, gliding tantalisingly high up across the stage.

Despite his curiosity, he did not ask too many questions, and she appreciated that he did not treat this like an interview.

His mother, with the keen sense of a bloodhound, had milked this curiosity and got them married in a flash. After all, he was approaching 30 and concerned family members had begun enquiring. It was the right time. So, he placed the weight of a rock on her finger and anchored her to his life. She, of course, gladly accepted.

“You will be there at 7.30 this evening, no?” She asked him, puncturing his flashback as she poured watery coconut chutney over his breakfast of rava masala dosa. He shook his head in dull fashion: “I might have to take amma to Nalli to pick a saree for the wedding. You should come, Nik. Someone can stand in for you, I’m sure.”

He’s doing it again, she thought to herself.

She very nearly narrated a list of objections as Arun’s mother came waddling into the kitchen, smoothing out her blood-orange saree. Nikhila jumped as a loud beeping sound evaporated from the cellphone that was inserted in a pouch dotted with mirrors, and suspended from the skirt of her mother-in-law’s saree.

Amma!” Nikhila exclaimed, exasperated, wiping splattered chutney from the counter and her fingers. Her mother-in-law giggled as she patted her slickly oiled, coiffed head weighed down by the innumerable, precariously placed bobby pins. “Ah! Nikki. It’s just a phone call. You are too dramatic.”

She howled into the receiver as Nikhila watched the dosa fizzle like her nerves, on the tava.

“Nobody speaks, bloody fools.” Her mother-in-law muttered, annoyed.

“It’s probably just a text message, amma.” Nikhila retorted, in an irritated, nasal tone.

“Ah, yes. It is Priya’s future mother-in-law. My sambandhi.” She adjusted her spectacles delightedly and went off to find her husband, to whom she would read the message aloud.

The impending marriage of her sister-in-law, Priya, had meant that her husband’s parents had descended from Coimbatore a month in advance and her mother-in-law was always around. It had been six months ago since the match was fixed.

Late on a summer evening, when the air was cool and the mosquitoes many, a beat-up Fiat had pulled up to the front porch of her husband’s parents’ house. Before Nikhila had the chance to attempt the tricky feat of assimilating faces and names in her dusty memory, her mother-in-law recited a high-pitched summary of all their faults and supposed deviance. Nikhila was quickly instructed to prepare something for the guests to eat. It was a host of visitors escorted by Savitri periamma, her husband’s aunt, who barged in with her tingling anklets in a Kancheepuramsaree that was as over-the-top as she was, looking as though she might burst.

When she was satisfied that she had gathered the attention of all the people in the house, she exploded like a geyser: “I have found the boy!” Both sets of parents had promptly exchanged plates of fruit, coconut and gaudy sarees in a promise that sealed the marriage of their children — one of them Nikhila’s sister-in-law. The past two weeks had been a blur of hurried shopping, emotional outbursts, and multiple trips to T Nagar, Chennai in small Maruti 800s, each hauling over seven people.

“Isn’t it a bit too soon?” she had asked her mother-in-law. “I mean, why did we finalise everything so soon? Did anybody talk to Priya?”

“Why? She seems OK.”

“Yeah, but did she explicitly agree?”

“Whatever do you mean, Nikki? He has an engineering degree from Stanford. And he is over six feet tall. Very fair. Look at the other people on the matrimonial sites. So many rowdies, frauds. This is a family known to us through Savithri’s neighbours. Don’t talk like a mad girl, Nikki. You are lucky that my young boy, my kanna, liked you. Good boys do not grow on trees.” 

With that, she turned on the TV set and settled into the couch to watch one of her serials that would typically feature weeping women with bulging eyes and violent men with rotund bellies.

 

A few days later in the muggy June heat, Arun blew circles of smoke as Nikhila traced a figure zero on his hairy, carpeted chest. She swept her thinning hair from her face and propped herself up on her right shoulder, gazing straight into his Marie-biscuit-coloured face.

“I have a play the night before the wedding.”

“On the night of the reception? Do you have to go?”

“It starts at five. I’ll only be gone an hour. Two at the maximum. I am up for the role of Miranda.”

Sex and the City?” he asked, surprised.

“Tempest, you idiot.”

Nikhila caught a circle of smoke between her teeth like a doughnut. He laughed.

“Ok, ok. I’ll try and speak to amma.”

But one day later, Nikhila was forced to phone in with severe diarrhoea and had to back out of her role in the play. Her mother-in-law was most agitated when she heard about it. She directed her frustration at Arun, as she always did.

“How can she not be there, Arun? She is Priya’s sister-in-law. Tell me, how will it look? What will people say? And, what is this acting, drama? This family is her duty. Duty is more important than simple hobbies. The gods must hear my prayer. What did I do to deserve this? I need help on that day. She has got to be there. Tell her to call that director or whoever. And if he asks what made her ill, tell him this. All this sickness is from all that make-up and harsh, fiery lighting in those drama shows. It has got to her head and she doesn’t know the difference between her real life and enacting these stories.” 

Nikhila tried to interject feebly, “But, I’ve been rehearsing for two...”

Her mother-in-law drew her breath in as her nostrils flared, “Arun, she cannot go. If she enjoys acting, she can come to the reception and ‘act’ like she wants to be there.” Satisfied that she had made her point, she trotted out of the room and two seconds later, Nikhila heard the screeching of a metal chair across the floor and the TV began wailing background music to some miserable Tamil TV show.

The conversation was over. Her father-in-law continued to scan the newspaper as he usually did during these heated discussions as if he were just a painting on the wall. She could bet that he hadn’t so much as read a sentence or turned a page the entire time. Arun stared at her like a puppy that had been smacked. She fought tears as she grabbed the cordless telephone from its holder and walked to the balcony.

As she lied to her director, she scanned her cupboard and picked out a saree in dull green, one that she was sure her mother-in-law would hate, and a pair of shoes that would ensure she was taller than Arun at the wedding the following week.

It was only the third time she was meeting her sister-in-law’s betrothed. And it was on the day of the wedding. His scalp glistened where a comb had ploughed his oily hair. It was now  poking out of his pants’ front pocket. When he saw Arun and Nikhila, he folded his palms into a yoga-esque samasteti bow and they mirrored his gesture, reflexively. His whitewashed veshti and mundu gave him the impression of a calm saint, but when he turned, sweat stains like brushstrokes across his slightly hunched back gave his nervousness away. Nikhila caught an up-close look at his crooked teeth, with yellowed decaying edges. She resisted the urge to advise him to rub some baking soda and lemon on them but made a mental note to slip it into the conversation sometime in the future. His parents floated by in a cloud of powder, turmeric and the scent of agarbathi, bowed, and then plucked him from their meeting, thrusting their trio of beaming faces into each guest’s face and thanking them for showing up, and narrating the same story: their prized engineer son and his successful acquisition of every Indian parent’s dream for their son: a slim, fair bride of their choosing.

“The groom is so handsome,” Savithri periamma clucked proudly. “Like Y-elvis!” The guests sat in long rows facing an elevated stage, the mandapam, where the vadhiyar (priest) was performing preliminary rituals, sweating profusely, as trumpets bleated and drumbeats tortured the attendees. “See, Nikki. Have you ever seen anything better? Always with the movies and the plays. This is the real life. Nothing more beautiful.” Nikhila had learned to feign agreement with these statements. She merely nodded.

Twenty minutes later, she walked upstairs to see if Priya needed any help before she would be brought to the mantap, where she would walk around a fire and be bound by seven vows under raining rice and rose petals. Priya was muttering into her phone, simultaneously knitting her forehead and the pallu of her saree into complex knots. She hung up instantly as Nikhila’s shadow fell at her feet. Before Nikhila could say a word, her mother-in-law rushed past her, with Priya’s close friends and chattering cousins trailing her. They all melted into a chorus of praise and admiration, fastening ornaments, helping her drink a little water, some buttermilk.

“Everything is beautiful downstairs,” amma cooed. “Perfect.”

“How is appa?” Priya asked.

“So happy. And very proud, kanna,” amma said, in an exaggerated manner.

But Nikhila had the inkling that something wasn’t right with Priya. Maybe it was the way she had beheaded and crushed a flower that now lay sadly near her feet. Maybe it was the guilt in her eyes. There was something that she had sensed when Priya had hung up the phone. Making sure the others were occupied, Nikhila walked a thin line, carefully yet surely, deliberately allowing her feet to print each word into Priya’s carefully coiffed head. “Priya, do you not want to marry him?”

Priya’s eyes darkened as she blinked, clearly startled. “Hand me those bangles, please,” she said without a tremor in her voice. Nikhila retracted the doubt that she sought to place within Priya, and it slowly began to beat in time to her quickening pulse. She felt it speak as she reached for the rainbow-coloured bangles, speckled in gold, arranged in a strikingly silver plate. “Would she really marry him if she didn’t want to?”

It drew her in as she breathed the sweet jasmine perched delicately upon Priya’s dark, braided bun.

“She must have thought about the consequences,” she told herself. She sensed that she had made a mistake and searched violently for words that were bigger and heavier, that would rescue the ones she had let slip away and destroy the hovering cloud that they had birthed. The bright make-up and celebratory music could not dull the discomfort that had created a bridge of silence that neither of them wished to cross. In the blur of vividly coloured sarees and thundering music, she caught sight of the pools of water in her eyes. “I can’t do it,” Priya suddenly stated. Nikhila saw her mother-in-law’s face slowly drained of all colour.

Nikhila cursed herself for thinking it. But this would be a real show, and for the first time in a long time, she’d be the audience.

 

Also read:

Meeting Old Age (First Prize-winning short story by Smitha Murthy.)

The Silver Anklet (The Third Prize-winning short story by Sharika Nair.)

 

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Short Story- Second Prize: An Appetite for Drama

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