He had checked in his luggage. His hands were free. He missed the consolation of an airport novel the brunette next seat blissfully absorbed herself in: No Greater Love. Danielle Steel.
Women! Mohan sighed and looked away before the reader glanced up and caught him staring. Manner-less man, she too will think. Mohan believed that certain female authors were directly responsible for giving women such loony tunes and ruining the lives of their men forever.
Certain authors had influenced Maya, too. He remembered her as a young girl reading Jane Austen in the evenings in the verandah, waiting for her Darcy to open the gate against the setting sun and step into her rose garden. Her plaited hair fell across her breasts down to her hips. She was so young then, so very young. Something inside Mohan ached. He had observed her often: In her soft eyes a secret pledge glinted in the twilight like a reflection of a star in a deep, still well. He had heard her at the piano after that. Her little laments wedged in between piano keys. Her youth tired of waiting in the shadows but hopeful.
The star crossed.
That was before he left.
Mohan closed his eyes to erase the sad, beautiful memory that haunted him time and again. The cacophony of the airport filled his ears. He opened his eyes to see the familiar impersonal presence of travelers he would probably never get to know.
Walking, talking, baggage fumbling, trolley pushing, luggage check in, duty free shopping, waiting…
The reality of waiting, with nothing but anticipation taken for granted.
Outside the glass cage Boeings and Airbuses swam in and out like metallic whales, teaming around the jetties against a stainless steel sky. For a moment Mohan didn’t know where he was. Heathrow? Amsterdam? Or still in New York? Why do airports everywhere look the same?
He couldn’t help comparing them with the railway stations of the country of his birth. Old, used, uncared for like wives, yet in some ways unique; rusted beams with murders of crows and peeling poles with luscious creepers wrapped around them. Sea wind blowing peanut flakes across a pigeon shit patterned floor. The third world taste for variety, Mohan decided, with a smile.
This is the first world feel; the sparkle of a shopping mall: Clean. Categorized. Labeled. And priced. Bewildering, in its array of choices, encountered at every turn of your head. Forcing you to choose in a world where choosing has no alternative. Could Mohan for once not walk around in the airport mall to kill time, looking at the same products he has seen before, as if they were some ancient exotic artifacts in a museum display? Armani Leather Jacket. 1990-2000 AD.
He wished he had someone to share his observation. But everyone, reduced to mere transit passengers like him, seemed busy exhibiting themselves for anyone they assumed to be watching. So occupied. So concerned. With the boding passes, their hand luggage, their make up. Checking time. Chattering into cellulars. Opening laptops. Reading The Economist. Worrying about stock quotes on the Daily Telegraph, or catching up with Manchester United on the flashing tele-screens across the spacious transit lounge. As if to say, look, I’m not just a passenger, I’m a professional. I’m busy. I’m important.
He wished the brunette reading Danielle Steel would look up for once; just a smile. He wished nothing more from her. He was tired and lonely.
Airports were strange places indeed. They made you wait and watch. They hung between the transitory spheres, not owned by the earth or the sky, to which Mohan related more than the tug of the possessive, divided earth. They lured you with a promise of change; a new life in a new place. Mohan remembered the young man who first fled his country of birth, too small a place for his quest for freedom, his thirst for knowledge, his hankering for success. His blue-chip baron dreams were too big for a teardrop-island, he had told himself.
It took him three decades to realize that the continent he adopted was also an island. A larger one perhaps, than the one he left, but still an island. But he had sired Algorithms by then. The company had grown up like a child, with his love and sacrifice. It gave him everything he had on that particular day. It was his alter ego. Algorithms Inc. committed him and absorbed him in a devotion that sustained him in that land. On a day like this, when life enfolded a sense of conclusion, it was his only reason to hold his chin so high.
But he still felt like a snake searching for a skin, discarded and left behind at some distant point in the past, never giving it a second thought. Strange, he thought, how joy consumes the moments of triumph so swiftly and abandons you.
And there was Maya, waiting for a day like this perhaps. He still saw her waiting in the verandah in a gloomy evening, watching the sun set in her world, carcasses of the mosquitoes that bothered her littering the green cement floor.
Maya…the secret whisperer in his head, who made him ache with love and shame. A weary hope, annihilated by guilt, protected by choice-less-ness or perhaps his indomitable sense of optimism, waved at him like a weak patient from a hospital bed. Would she look the same? Would the house look the same? The paint on the walls. The floor. The mid court yard. The old teak sofa. The piano. The brass vases. Was she still there, alone in that house?
Did she still watch their favorite TV programs in the evening, the way they used to in their intimate shared childhood?
Their ‘Sesames Street’-childhood. That was when life just began. When Maya only knew how to play ‘Happy Birthday’ on the piano. And only read Masha and the Bear. He had watched her grow up to be a soft-eyed beauty playing the Nutcracker Suite and reading Pride and Prejudice.
He hadn’t talked to her in years.
It was Maya he sought now, when life had completed its full circle, but somehow never found where it began. As if, somewhere along the line, it became a spiral instead of a circle, making his mind hang on that loose end, forever searching, seeking to meet the other end, incomplete.
It must have been what he sought in those many faces. In Sunita and Kimberley. Perhaps even those fleeting women about whom his memory was amorphous, their names forever lost in the tumult of his early college days. The marijuana Saturdays when he woke up mid day and wondered who was lying next to him, deadly asleep amidst the roar of Iron Maiden still playing full blast on the stereo. He was heady then with his new freedom; his escape from a futureless land, drowned in the vastness of his new territory which at that time seemed boundless. He loved the cityscape that glistened around him – the arrogance of metal, concrete and glass in the sun. It must have been his age…
In a way, Mohan married Sunita to compensate for what his family went through to finance his higher education from across the oceans. His parents spent on him what he in his heart felt should have given Maya. Not that the lack of dowry was the reason why she never married. And his parents tried hard. So did he. He did what he could, which was to beg her to come with him. Nothing could budge her sense of belonging to that house. And that land. She didn’t want to leave her Jane Austens. Her rose garden. Her piano. For her there could be no other place.
Roots ruined Maya’s life. It was written in her birth chart that she would never get married or cross an ocean. Not for all her brother’s success and her parents’ good name, all her beauty and accomplishments. Despite all the blessings she could count in her life, the stars simply crossed her out. At times it was a joke that went sour. It somehow made Mohan feel guilty. It took years for him to figure out why. Now, all these years later, after marrying twice and crossing the oceans a countless times, Mohan felt that finally, the stars had treated them equal; that this was Destiny’s sense of justice. Peppered with irony, of course.
She had always been a reserved girl. Not quite arrogant, but always a little distant. She gained a reputation as a musician during her school days, going to church though she wasn’t a Catholic simply because they allowed her to play the organ and sing in the choir. Mohan had seen her singing hymns with devotion he could not understand at that time. Their parents worried that she would convert.
He always thought about Maya when he went for operas with Kimberly. Kimberly smiled that kind, patient smile every time he told her that his Maya played and sang much better; that she was a soprano of a rare kind, which is why he wanted Maya to come away from a land that didn’t recognize the quality of her talent.
It was such a waste, he felt. Her beauty suffered the same end. Every time Mohan flew in from States, in those early years, he was once again startled by Maya’s loveliness. To him it was a delicacy, a mix of unmixable features that he had not inherited from their parents. In Maya it blossomed into a nineteenth-century charm one only finds in oil-on-canvas or dreams.
It puzzled him that she never attracted a suitor in any of the social gatherings she must have attended in her prime. Later he took it that either they lacked refinement or had been intimidated by her elegance.
It was too late when it occurred to him that Maya never married because she searched for love. Had he been closer to their home could he have saved her from the state he found her in years later? He could have explained that the several lifetimes could pass by before one found love, the kind that she seemed to want, anyway… and even if one found it would never last. He would have told her that men are shaped differently; that they are born with far greater ambitions than falling in love with women…that her virtue was outdated and did not serve a purpose…that she was committing social suicide by remaining a spinster in a country where marriage meant much more than two individuals passionately fancying each other.
Had only he been closer…
But then, Maya was not one of those stubborn women he so often came across. On the contrary, she was willing and eager and later, became quite desperate. She managed to mask it by pretending that she chose the freedom of spinsterhood. She fought to age gracefully by turning her loss in to a victory. She became a dedicated daughter to her aging parents and refused Mohan’s economic assistance when her music lessons could give her a decent living. She stopped going to church to avoid meeting friends who were now mothers and instead turned to the temple. Secretly, she believed that she would remain young as long as she remained pure, and thus her wardrobe became all white, colours abandoning her before her youth actually faded.
Kimberly, of course, had her own explanation about ‘the issue’: Maya never married because she was in love with Mohan. And Mohan never loved any other woman because in truth he actually loved Maya. She came up with the theory in one of her fleeting Freudian moods, when they tried to reason out why Mohan always failed in sustaining relationships and she tried to play his shrink. Mohan said Kim was crazy. Kim said Mohan was obsessed.
He badly wanted a cigarette. He had another hour to kill. He was sitting next to a beautiful stranger in a non-smoking transit lounge.
Mohan had no taste for ironies. By then there had been too many in his life. Kim was one of them. She came after several others after Sunita. In a dingy nightclub he should never have visited, in a multi-coloured darkness mingled with marijuana fumes, he had stopped to fill her glass. They walked out wrapped around each other; took each other in frenzy on the back seat of his sedan parked in a crowded lot of empty cars. He took three months to decide but he married her.
She was an actress in a small, badly paid theatre group, never making it even close to limelight because she hadn’t bothered a try. It hadn’t mattered much to her as she was born and brought up in downtown Soho. With his money she made him buy a penthouse on the East Side; decorated their bedroom with baroque paintings bought from Soho auctions and gracefully hosted his social gatherings. She was thirty-seven looking twenty-five and had a daughter living somewhere with her father, who Mohan never saw. Nobody could guess where she came from. She smiled and shook her head when a guest questioned her about Irish ancestry. She got pregnant because she felt it was fashionable but miscarried, (to Mohan’s relief).
In bed she was a creature with many faces, melting from Iron maiden to Kenny G in a flick of eyelashes. Her ability to fuse myriad moods into their moments of intimacy involved Mohan in a way he never thought was possible. Kimberly was a deeply engaging woman who had lived many lifetimes in one and for that very reason, was beyond Mohan’s reach. He never considered her ravings supporting open marriage thinking it would not be an issue, especially as he hadn’t been a faithful husband to Sunita. But when six months into their astounding marriage, Kim started to take her nights out with fellow actors, Mohan shambled into their lovely penthouse, exhausted after the board meetings of Algorithms and found that he had to stare at the baroque painting in the bedroom – a pair of lovers moist with passion with a human skull wedged between their nudity.
That was Kimberly on canvas. Mohan was surprised that it hurt him. Something he never believed himself capable of. He refused to call it love because he did not want to loose her. The irony was that it never meant much for her. She walked out of his life as swiftly as she walked in; never taking a second look at the luxuries she left behind; As if she were only vacating a hotel room where she had stayed for a couple of days. She left her expensive gowns because she did not need them, she explained in the voice message she had left on the recorder. The divorce papers came to his office a week later. There had been no arguments between them, but Mohan wasn’t surprised. It was the second divorce in his life. His hand shook more than it did the first time as he signed – he buried himself with the last dot. The simplest things in life had failed him.
It was a gloomy morning outside the lounge. He could now see a slight drizzle wetting the wings of the aircrafts stationed closer to him. A weak sun tussled the hulking clouds. Inside the lounge it didn’t matter whether it was day or night, dry or raining, warm or cold. Nature had ceased to matter. Mohan wondered about the lives of his co-passengers. Had they won the simple things in life? For instance, who was this beautiful brunette beside him, reading Danielle Steel, page 114? Where did she come from? What had her childhood been? How many times had she been in love? How many brothers and sisters? How many husbands? How many kids? Who were her closest friends? Were her parents still living? Did they know where she was now?
Mohan thought about his parents; wondered where they were now. He realized that he still believed in rebirth. Funny, after all those years; it made him feel better. Maybe he’ll have better luck next time.
He couldn’t remember how old his mother was when she died. By then she had realized that her son might never come home and her daughter might never get married. She had grown old and dull with the constant knowledge that she would never see a grandchild, which in her own opinion made her the same as barren.
Mohan recalled his mother’s funeral with surprising lucidity. He even recalled the houses he passed by on his way from the airport. The streets had changed. New up-stair houses like cakes with vanilla icing, looking so fresh that you could eat them, replaced the small houses at the top of the lane Mohan remembered from his childhood. In those houses now lived a class of mothers slightly different from Mohan’s own. They had their sons and daughters in the deserts of the Middle East and Mohan could hear it in the loud noise of their stereo sets; in the glint of gold around their flabby necks, the fake sunglasses: Their desperate race to outdo next-door.
The buildings and roads had changed. The people looked the same.
When Mohan had entered the house – his home – he felt so strange that it shocked him. He stood for a long time by her still body wondering how little he knew of her now. He was unfamiliar with the whiteness of her hair, the shrivelled skin that wrapped her skeleton. His father was small and grieved and unnoticeable.
That was the last time he had seen Maya. Her luscious hair had thinned away. Her eyes had lost their glint. The space around her was constantly permeated with a bitter struggle to accept her fate…the staleness of her virginity flaked off her skin like dandruff. It disgusted Mohan.
They were both dry-eyed beside their mother. Only their father shook with silent sobs. Mohan could never believe that his parents were madly in love with each other. But they were compatible and happy. To them it had been enough. They had won the simple things in life.
In his misfortune he probed his parents’ marriage hunting for clues. How did they manage to live together for so long? From what he remembered his mother spent more time on them than with his father. The mother figure stepped forward and Mohan could not imagine her as a lover of another man, his father. He could only see her as she was to him, the smell of her skin, and the youth in her voice were devoid of womanliness and filled with motherliness. Try as he might, he couldn’t understand women through his mother, or vice versa, or whichever the way Freud had it. As she fed Mohan and Maya mouthfuls of rice from the same plate she had weaved her magical tales into their heads. Her tales were many, but now, he could recall only one:
The evening Mohan’s mother told Maya and him the story of the seven suns was not like the day that waited outside the terminal windows, waiting politely like a low-caste stranger to be blatantly dismissed. For one thing, that tropical evening didn’t wait to be noticed. It wasn’t the background description of a novel, setting the mood for protagonists to say whatever they were about to say. It was the protagonist. It was the main action. The sun was a step closer than any other days, fighting its fiery way down to the sea, while in its glow the greenness of the garden (Maya’s beloved garden with Mohan’s beloved guava tree in it) suddenly came alive with a tint of rusty bronze. The air was pregnant with anticipation. The monsoon was probably a day away. Even now, almost a lifetime later, this was the nature’s moment Mohan related to most: a hot humid evening a day away from the southwest monsoon, when everything about life was expectant of that first clap of thunder that would let it loose. It was madness, this monsoon rain. It was romance and renewal, release and retaliation. And this, for those who knew what’s in store, was the moment before that drama began.
On that evening Mohan and Maya were the backdrop. They were sniffing for the rain in the wind like puppies searching for the scent of milk. Their mother was treating them to a plate of hot rice with coconut sambol and fried fish. She made the mixed rice into perfect little portions which she equally divided for the two of them. Mohan had been content just to watch the sunset. It was Maya who insisted a story and Mohan decided it should be about the rain and the sun. That was how their mother came to tell them the story of the seven suns. It was a tale about the end of the world, the way Buddhists perceived it.
His mother said that after the seven suns, there would be hailstones of fire. In Buddhist folklore these storms were called the Murugasan varusa: Beastly Rain.
Why did they come? The children ask, looking suspiciously at the monsoony skies. When people become corrupt to the point of no return, when they start treating each other like beasts, their mother answered.
‘Divided, isolated and estranged from each other, we will perish one day in a hailstorm. They say this world will burn out with the seventh sun, and that would be the end.’
Her words ring again from some hollow corner, registering in Mohan the certainty of disaster. When he opens his eyes, the evening is no more. The airport devoid of natural time sends a shiver down his spine. Estrangement, the harbinger of the sixth sun, he thinks, looking at the busy bodies around him; the beautiful stranger beside him. Should he dare disturb her?
Mohan decided to take his father to the States with him after the funeral. It was the only sensible step he could think of. Maya had not protested. By then they had grown apart, being away from each other for so long. They were strangers with separate lives about which the other knew next to nothing. No longer the pair of intimate children who frolicked in a shared fairy story, one beauty when the other was beast, one Little John when the other was Tuck.
Having his father around him was one of those few decisions about which he was happy. At first the old gentleman seemed to adapt well. He went for solitary promenades and in the evenings they had their long overdue father to son chats, with a shot of rum to ease the scourge that life had become to them. Things were almost fine.
Until the day his father went to the near by department store to buy some cheese and witnessed a bunch of teenagers walk in with guns. At gun-point the old gentleman stood blinking for a few moments, unbelieving, then simply fell on the floor though he wasn’t shot and was rushed to a hospital.
The shock had been too much for his weak brain cells. Mohan had to see his father in coma for three months, dead long before his actual death, surrounded by the sterile environment of a hospital bed, a mesh of tubes and needles sucking and injecting and monitoring him. It was so rude and clinical and took ages that Mohan sobbed at his bed: don’t punish me father…. I know this is not your way to die.
It took him months to come to terms with this irony and to inform Maya about the death of their father. What could he say to her…? Hello…Maya…? This is Mohan. I’m afraid its bad news…father passed away…a few months back…at the shock of seeing a shopping mall robbed…
So he hadn’t talked to her since. He believed that she lived the same life, played the same Mozart on the same piano. She might have given up her roses…but then, what else could change?
A cell phone rang irritatingly in the terminal lounge: Like women, annoyingly indispensable. Mohan wished it were his so he could switch it off.
Danielle Steel: No Greater Love, page 121. The brunette has not looked up once. That is a little unnatural, thought Mohan. Is it because she felt his eyes on her? Is she another Sunita, who doesn’t look you straight in the eye for the fear of confrontations?
When he married Sunita and first brought her to States, it seemed as if she would never survive. She was not the kind of woman who could adapt fast enough with the changing patterns of American life. The things that intrigued Mohan frightened or revolted Sunita. Mohan remembered that especially after he married her he kept on running into irresistibly interesting women. And when he divorced her, they all seemed to vanish.
Over the years his thoughts about Sunita shrunk to a laconic acquaintance, as if she were just a stranger one met at the supermarket, who once picked up oranges from the same carton. Only that they had more than oranges in common. They had Tara.
Contrary to what Mohan expected, Sunita never left the States after the divorce. She fiercely brought up an American daughter who didn’t speak her mother’s tongue. Again Mohan took some time to understand his first wife’s wisdom: the importance of being unimportant.
Tara was an average American teenager, born and brought up in States, complete with divorced immigrant parents and a boyfriend high on drugs: a first generation American not too keen about roots. Tara attended her grandfather’s burial with a dignity that gave Sunita a sense of triumph, which finally allowed her to look Mohan in the eye.
In Mohan’s life Tara created a sense of loss and irony of a daughter who does not need a father. His craving for Tara became a dull pain in his bones, like rheumatism. The more he tried to show his love for her the more she hated him. He had often stood clownishly, outside her school gate, with teddy bears and ice-cream, while Tara walked past him straight in to Sunita’s old, coughing car. Back at home, he wept like a rejected bride.
He found himself sobbing in the transit lounge. The drizzle on the other side of the glass panes poured in Mohan’s mind, like a deluge of recollections and ironies he wanted to check in with his baggage, but was still there next to him as real as the brunette who had not given him a smile. Memory is that obsessive image in the mirror every morning, something Mohan couldn’t erase even if he smashed it down; only worse, by fragmenting himself into thousand splinters. At times, memory was only Maya’s eyes. Or Tara’s scornful glance. Memory is an organ in your body…like your hair or nails that keep growing however much you cut and clip. You can ignore it when you are busy, but it will lunge back at you, worsened, when you are not.
Like Maya…who never crossed the ocean, but trails him like a pallid shadow.
He longed to listen to her voice glistening with the sheen of white piano keys; a call from some wild, distant shore. He yearned to see her as he remembered her, as lovely as a renaissance painting. He imagined it would be by the hour the monsoon sets in. Maybe he would stand there in the pouring rain till she recognizes him, till she recalls the contours of his face from some wild, distant childhood. He wished she wouldn’t look too old…
The brunette closed her book as the gates opened for another flight. Passengers rolled into a queue, stretching themselves. She got up and walked away across his sight, without a glance. Not that he cared. He panicked a little when he remembered the long, tortuous hours ahead of him. The passageway down the terminal tangled up in his brain, a wild convoluted maze, as he ambled towards the strangers flocking to the cocoon of another flight.