* * *
Fifteen years. That is how long I have been searching. But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Ok, I have not climbed the highest mountains or scaled the city walls. But I have run and I have crawled. Well, almost. And I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.
Love. Ishq. Pyaar. Kaadal.
I could throw in a few other languages there as well, but that would be showing off. And my mother did not raise me to be like that. But I digress. Love, true love. I know I would recognize it, if I saw it. After all, I’m an expert on love. I’ve devoured every historical, contemporary and anything-in-between romance I could lay my hands on. I’ve watched countless classic, sappy and rom com movies of the Hollywood, Bollywood and Kollywood variety. I know what it would feel like to fall in love, be in love, true love. Your heart in your mouth, your stomach twisted in knots, violins in the background, that strange giddy feeling…
That kind of love. That is what I yearn for.
* * *
Love at first sight. Eyes meet across a crowded room, and for a moment, a brief moment, time comes to a standstill. Or, that’s what they say.
Did I catch my first sight of him across a crowded room? Yes, I did. Only, it is arranged. The parents broached the matter and with no real reason to resist, I have given in to the inevitable. I have given them a checklist to work through. I hope the list will buy me some time. But it doesn’t quite work out the way I imagine. In no time at all, they have lined up a “boy” who meets all the conditions on my list.
“He is so tall,” I complain.
“That was not on the checklist,” they reply.
I insist on meeting him alone. He has agreed to pick me up at my office, just across the road from the Victoria Terminus railway station, VT as it was called then. I walk in to the reception area. All I have is a photo to identify him by, the one the parents have dutifully couriered across. My eyes dart across faces, as I urgently look for a tall guy with a mustache.
Is he the ONE? Yes, he definitely is. No one north of Chennai would sport that big brush of a mustache. Back then all I knew was the toothbrush mustache, made famous by Charlie Chaplin and Hitler. One, a comedian, and another, a tyrant. Not a good omen. I edge closer. I am sure now that it is not a toothbrush. It is thick and wide and has a downward slope that outlines a mouth that stretches into a friendly smile in greeting. It’s called a Chevron, I learn later.
Did my heart skip a beat, did time stand still, even for a moment? Nah, at least not then. Yeh hai Mumbai meri jaan, the city that never sleeps. You can forget about time standing still.
I’m sure it was not love.
* * *
A sultry June morning in Chennai. I’ve been up since the early hours of dawn, with nothing to sustain me except milk and bananas. What’s it with all the milk and bananas they keep force feeding you in these Tamil weddings? The unfamiliar weight of the heavy Kanjeevaram sari, that a couple of aunts hurriedly help me drape, makes me uncomfortable. I look at the horizontal stripes and fret. What on earth possessed me to pick stripes? They will do nothing for my 5 feet 1 inch tall frame. I think lovingly of my 4 inch heels, bought after a day spent traipsing through every single shoe shop on Linking Road, Bandra. How could I have forgotten that I will not be allowed to wear footwear on the mandapam?
The sound of the Getti Melam snaps me out of my dazed state. Does he gaze into my eyes lovingly as he ties the thaali around my neck? It’s hard to say, since I am looking down. Not because I am overcome with shyness. No, I have to bend my head so the others can lift my long braid, heavily laden with flowers, while he ties the thaali. All I think of at that moment is “Dear God, don’t let the false braid come off now.”
The deed is well and truly done. We are man and wife. The priest asks my husband (how strange that word sounds) to lead me around the fire holding my little finger in his.
“That first touch… your hands must be tingling”, cackles an elderly aunt.
“Look at you blush. Don’t faint on us now” I hear a distant cousin call out. I remember then why I prefer to keep her at a distance.
Over five hundred guests in the hall, at least a quarter of them crowding around the mandapam, is it any wonder that I feel faint. Luckily the moment passes.
I guess it was not love.
* * *
I’m ready to burst. With my news and my bladder. I can’t wait for him to come home. He is ecstatic. Even more so than me, if that’s possible. He surprises me with a gift. A stuffed doll, a girl in a red polka dotted dress, with shaggy hair and cute button eyes. I adore her already.
He calls every afternoon to ask me how I am doing, a moment carved out of a busy day. He holds my hair back from my face, rubs my back as I throw up, again and again and again. He comes with me to the doctor for every appointment, watches patiently as I devour books and articles that tell me what to expect when I am expecting. He waits for me to demand pickle and ice cream in the middle of the night. Ah, but we live in sleepy Bengaluru and it does not occur to me to put him to test. Missed opportunities.
“He indulges you so much” my friends tell me.
“I’m doing all the hard work here, so he better!” I say, only half-jokingly.
We bring her home, my little poppet. He rushes home eagerly every evening to be with us. With her. I watch him, as he watches her. As he rocks her on his knees, cradling her little frame tenderly in his big palms, all the while talking to her, asking her about her day. Her fingers curl around his thumb, trustingly and he gazes at her in wonder. There’s a strange heavy feeling in my chest.
“Give her to me” I say abruptly.
He looks up surprised. I almost snatch her from him. I hold her close to me and she latches on happily as the milk gushes out. I feel my chest relax.
Three years later, we do it all over again. From three, we have become four.
Is it love?
Who has time to think of love, when there’s a toddler demanding attention and a baby bawling? Waiting to be fed? Burped? Changed? All of the above?
* * *
“Why are you so angry amma,” she asks. She is always so tuned in to my every nuance, this little one of mine.
He looks up from the newspaper, from the crossword puzzle he has been solving with her this Sunday morning. She comes to me and tries to smooth my forehead.
Where did I spring from, this snappy woman with a permanently furrowed brow and a sharp tongue?
“Why do I have to do everything around this house?” I demand, not for the first time. I look around at the mess that is our home. Newspapers strewn all over, books and toys everywhere, clothes lying unfolded, unopened bills and mail, a fine layer of dust on the few surfaces that are not already covered with books and newspapers. Did I already mention the books and newspapers? There is lunch still to be made. I move furiously from room to room, picking things up, putting them away, even as my mind works in a parallel plane, preparing, planning for the week ahead at work.
“Tell me what you want my help with and I’ll do it,” he says calmly.
“Why do I have to tell you everything? Why can’t you see what needs to be done?”
I’m livid. I imagine I look like a bull in a bullfight arena, fire in my eyes, snorting and frothing at the mouth, pounding the ground with my paws. Not a pleasant image, I admit, especially the frothing at the mouth.
I take a deep breath, trying to calm my stressed out nerves.
“There’s so much to do. Sometimes I feel like a headless chicken, madly rushing from one thing to the other. This house, the chores, the kids. With all this cluttering my mind, how can I focus on work?”
“But we discussed this when the kids came along. You wanted to take a break from work and get on the slow track. You wanted to take care of them while I focused on work and money,” he argues reasonably.
“Yes, it was my choice to take a step back from my career. But I’ve given ten years of my life for this family and I have nothing left for myself. I hardly have any friends, no achievements to speak of and my career is a mess. What’s gone is gone. I can never get it back,” I wail.
“Tell me what YOU want to do and we’ll make it work,” he says. How can he be so calm when I’m having the mother of all meltdowns?
Love? Bah! Don’t even bring up that four letter word.
* * *
“Why don’t you join my running group?” he asks one day.
I look at him incredulously. Long distance running? Me?
“Ha ha, good one. Go pull someone else’s leg,” I say dismissively.
But he is serious. “You’ll like it. I bet you’ll make friends there,” he says earnestly.
I stonewall him. He keeps at it. Until I give in one day.
“Oh, it’s so romantic,” gush our friends. “The couple that runs together stays together.” Talk about pressure.
I gradually build up the miles. The smiles follow slowly. My first race, my first finish. Who would’ve thought it? He gifts me a mug with my picture on it – me, with my beaming face and my flying feet. I can’t stop smiling. Neither can the kids. Or maybe they are just relieved to see their smiling mother instead of a raging bull.
“Let’s do the Mumbai half marathon,” he says next.
“Twenty one kilometers? Are you crazy?” I splutter.
“Twenty one point one kilometers,” he says helpfully.
“But I can barely run ten kilometers,” I say.
“Just turn up for the training and you’ll see. You can do it,” he says, with more confidence in me than I have in myself.
Race day. I’m in my sartorial best. Neon orange t-shirt paired with bright pink socks and purple shoes. After all there’s John Abraham to impress right at the start line. Damn, is that his wife next to him? Oh, never mind. Remember, focus. Besides I’m married, and what would the kids say. Tsk, tsk.
I have never undertaken anything this ambitious before. I am almost overwhelmed by the rush of emotions. Who in their right minds would travel eight hundred and forty two kilometers from Bengaluru to Mumbai by air, only to cover twenty one point one kilometers by foot. The early morning breeze cools my strung out nerves. Ganapati bappa moriya, they chant, summoning the elephant God to give them the energy for what lies ahead. I hear the steady drum beats of the street performers’ dholak, dhamara daka, dhamara daka, dhamara daka dum. My heart picks up the beat and a chill runs down my spine. I’m all warmed up. How can I be warmed up and chilled at the same time?
I run. One foot ahead of the other. One step at a time. I count my steps. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. And repeat. I want to stop. But giving up is not an option. I must keep going. I must quell the voice that tells me to stop. I will crawl, if need be. But finish I must.
Then I see it. The one iconic image that defines Mumbai. The VT railway station with its towering arches and spires, and the colossal dome with the lady and the torch. Only, it’s now called Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus. But more importantly, it means the end is in sight. I pick up the speed and begin to sprint. My feet fly over the finish line. I am exhilarated.
I walk over to collect my finisher medal. The cold heavy metal feels solid and reassuring in my hand. I have achieved what so many don’t even attempt.
I look across the crowd. I feel a strange sense of déjà vu. I’m back to where it all began, fifteen years ago. And then I see him standing there. This tall guy with a big Chevron mustache, no one north of Chennai would sport. He catches my eyes and he beams. My legs turn to jelly. My heart pounds furiously. I’m breathless. All normal reactions after finishing a half marathon, I tell myself. I look at him. At this man who I’ve been married to for fifteen years, my life inextricably linked with his. Life. What’s love got to do with it? It’s just the endorphins.
* * *