The attendant packed the barfi and tied the box with a string. With the packet under his arm and a drizzle falling, Vinayak set out for Rani’s house.
As he knocked at the door, he wondered if he should have brought the sweets. But he was here and so was the barfi and there was nothing to be done about it.
Rani opened the door and stepped aside. He felt she was expecting him.
‘Where’s your goat?’ he asked, finding the courtyard empty.
‘When it rains, she goes into my room and refuses to come out. Her name’s Lata,’ she added.
They sat outside the bedroom, where the roof jutted a little, so that they would be saved from the drops. The dust coloured sky hung low with clouds. There was a patch of orange rain under the street lamp.
‘I got this.’ He handed her the sweets.
She untied the box. Her hair was loose and the rain drops had left dark spots on her green kameez. ‘Barfi.’ She smiled. She offered it to Vinayak and took one too. But as she bit into the sweet, she thought how he would not touch the water from her kitchen.
The house and the town beyond were silent. Rain fell in big drops.
‘Do you not feel lonely sometimes, living by yourself?’ he asked
‘I have Lata.’ She looked down and scratched her big toe. ‘When my husband passed away ten years ago and then my mother-in-law, the silence suffocated me. But it’s strange how it grows on you and then almost becomes a presence, someone you can talk to, pass your time with.’
Vinayak imagined her in the house, late in the evenings, turning on the lights, moving from the bedroom to the kitchen to the courtyard, folding the washing, chopping vegetables, and the silence following her around.
‘I can’t imagine living alone.’
‘When my husband wasn’t having fits or obsessing with water, bathing five times a day or washing his clothes in the middle of the night, he went to a woman in the neighbourhood. Our fights were violent. I can’t say I miss that too much.’ She gathered her hair and started to plait it.
‘Some said he was possessed by a spirit. But I think there were just some bolts loose in his head,’ Vinayak said.
‘I could never figure him out. Still, after he passed away I sat at home just crying. Then my mother-in-law passed away too and I started working in people’s houses.’
‘Did you not want to marry again? How old are you?’
‘I must be thirty. Sometimes I wish my husband had at least given me a child.’ She lowered her eyes and started to scratch her toe again. ‘But I have Lata. It’s okay.’
Vinayak kissed her.
The rain started to lash.
When he was leaving she gave him a polythene bag to cover his head, so that he would not get soaked, but they were glad for the rain, for now no one would see him leaving her house so late.
Now every third or fourth day after completing the household chores, Vinayak would visit Rani. Her body seemed new to him every time they made love, made up in two shades, the stomach darker than the breasts, the thighs fairer than the calves. Afterwards he would look at her as she lay by his side, trying to imprint the colour palette of her body on his mind. It disturbed him though when she asked him to leave her a mark on her lips or neck or breasts, something that she could return to when he was away. He would laugh it off and tell her not to be childish. He thought about her when they were apart but never told her that. Rani would bathe in the afternoon after returning from work and darken her eyes with kohl and put on glass bangles, and wait for Vinayak. It pleased him to see her make this effort. He was an old man and didn’t know what she saw in him, why she would even want him. In the evening before he left, they ate together in the kitchen. He taught her how to soak a slice of bread in sweet milk and shallow fry it, like Sumitra. Rani looked forward to this half an hour as much as the lovemaking. Vinayak moved with ease through her house now, in and out of the kitchen or lounged in the thin courtyard with Lata blinking sedately. One day he bought an exhaust fan for the kitchen and put a twenty rupee note in her palm to send for the electrician later. When Rani folded her fingers over the note, it quietly changed something between them. She started to defer to him on small and big matters of the house. Vinayak had never known what it was to be a part of a house or someone’s life in this way.
‘Where were you the whole afternoon and evening?’ Sumitra asked Vinayak, as she sat in the deep cane chair in the kitchen, sipping tea. She was familiar with his habit of lingering in the bazaars, chatting with shopkeepers, sitting five minutes here and ten there. But these long spells of disappearance over the past few months were new.
Vinayak glanced up from the cauliflower that he was chopping. He wondered if someone had told her about Rani. ‘I just stopped to watch television in one of the shops,’ he said. ‘I didn’t realise how late it was until I heard the temple bells.’
Sumitra took a sip from her cup. Vinayak made incisions and separated the florets from the cauliflower. ‘Since when did you start putting oil in your hair?’ she asked.
Rani’s sister came to visit, and for a week Vinayak didn’t see Rani at her house. They met for an afternoon at the edge of the town where a stream flowed and farmers grew beans and peas in small patches. They sat under a tree and ate the roasted chickpeas that Vinayak had brought along. It felt strange to be together outside. It felt like they were lovers.
‘Do you think you’ll marry me?’ she asked.
He continued to chew on the chickpeas, though his jaw moved sluggishly and self-consciously. ‘See, how heavy their school bags are,’ he said, pointing to the children trudging down the road.
The sister left and Vinayak’s visits resumed.
It was growing cold. Vinayak lay on the charpoy. The days were getting shorter. He could smell the cow dung smoke from the next door kitchen.
Rani was cutting reeds to make a broom. When twenty were done, she would sell them to a shop in the bazaar. ‘Stay the night,’ she said.
‘That won’t be possible.’
Her insistence irritated Vinayak. But at least she was talking. All afternoon she had seemed distant, coiled in a shell, even when they slept next to each other. He turned on his side. ‘You talk like a child.’ He smiled. ‘What’ll I tell Sumitra and Madan?’
‘They don’t own you, do they? Or is it that you don’t want me to have the slightest claim on you?’
‘We’re together now. How is spending the night any different?’ He slept with her, ate with her. It didn’t matter to him anymore that she was a low caste, that her forefathers had cleaned toilets with their hands. Sometimes he thought of marrying her. Renting a room in town and settling down with her. Leave for work in the morning and come back in the evening. Or live with her in his room on the terrace. Sometimes it seemed easy. But he knew Sumitra would not let her into the house. And what would Rani do after marriage? He wouldn’t want her to continue cleaning people’s toilets. He imagined her wilting on the terrace in the heat and growing bitter and dry and brittle from it.
He got up and put the charpoy against the wall. and then quietly closed the blue door as he left. Overhead a batch of sparrows flew home.
That night as he was about to enter Sumitra and Madan’s room with the water jug, he heard Sumitra tell Madan that he had been away the whole afternoon again. ‘Do you think he’s searching for a new job?’
‘Where do you think he’ll go after all these year?’ Madan laughed. ‘This is his home.’
These words said even without thinking warmed Vinayak’s heart. He cleared his throat, then went in.
‘Do you want me to massage your legs tonite?’ he asked Madan.
It was Sunday and Madan was reading the paper in the bedroom, when Vinayak walked in with the duster. He started to dust the cupboards and then moved to the dresser. ‘Sit down for a minute,’ Madan said and put the paper to one side. Sumitra had told him that the vegetable seller had told her that Vinayak went to Rani’s house every day.
Vinayak sat down on the edge of the bed. He feared what he thought could be coming.
‘So what’s this that I hear about you and the sweepress?’ Madan folded his arms across the stomach and waited for Vinayak to talk. His dark face bore chicken pox marks. Winter or summer, he dressed up in safari suits of shades of brown, pants and shirt made from the same heavy fabric. As a young man, he had campaigned for local politicians and still spoke as though he was on stage. Being a sweet maker had never fit his ambitions. He knew he would have to close down the factory soon. He wanted to start life all over again, see what America had in store for him. He wouldn’t mind working in a shop or even driving a taxi if it came to it.
‘I’m sure you are not thinking of marrying a sweepress,’ Madan said. ‘You should put an end to all this. It’s gone on for too long. I don’t want to say too much. You are wise enough to know good from bad, I hope.’
Vinayak got up and started to dust the side table. He wanted to thwack it. He wanted to go see Rani.
‘You can’t continue with her if you wish to live in this house,’ Madan said as Vinayak left the room.