Subramanya was returning home after his morning walk in the grounds. Like every cropped-oleanders-e1525883936887morning, he marveled at the drama that daybreak brought with it. Darkness was forced to make way for light by some strong unseen hand. The same force seemed to tell the birds when it was time to sing and the flowers when it was time to bloom. Each petal, each leaf and each blade of grass knew better than to disobey that command.

The precise discipline in the seemingly independent expanse around him often humbled him into feeling more insignificant than the specks of dust he brushed off his coat before wearing it. It was this very discipline that dictated his pen when he had to deliver difficult judgments. He felt compelled to emulate the unseen but evidently unforgiving hand that ruled the universe with benevolence and yet was intolerant of indiscipline.

He paused to listen to the bird-song and other morning sounds around him. The breeze whispering into the leaves, the distant scrape of brooms as dried leaves were swept up by the workers and the voice of the gardener reached him. Everything seemed so normal. Life at home too was good. The newspaper he had helped Raji and Damodar set up was doing well, he enjoyed teaching at the school, Harihara was happy. He liked the new leisure that had come into his life. He and a research assistant he had employed were together documenting the history of the Madras High Court and he hoped to publish it some day.

But all was not well. Despite himself, despite the stability in his life, he felt vaguely shaky and unease clawed his innards very often. He had begun to linger over his walks longer than before. He didn’t look forward now to going home to the music sessions, eating breakfast with the family or lingering over conversations at meals. He had begun to prefer solitude and sometimes felt himself sagging from within. He had spoken to the doctor who had laughed away his fears he might be ailing. “You are healthy as a horse Subramanya,” he had proclaimed after checking him.

Ill health was not the problem. Then what? The fear of an unknown enemy was subsuming him. He did not know where the enemy lay and yet, it was strong enough to keep him awake at nights and angry in the day. He could have fought back if it was tangible. He was unable to fight his emotional turmoil, and struggled to give it form. He had to confront it; he wanted to give it a name.

He had reached the cottage by now and sat on the bench outside. The sight of the cottage brought on the angst again. It was locked, but he sensed his enemy inside it. He had seen Raji and Damodar working, conversing, huddling over work or just laughing over something when they were here. Mere walls and doors had begun to intimidate him. Could it speak, the cottage would have told him that. But jealousy had taken hold of him and the inanimate cottage had become its symbol.

He walked home weary from his thoughts, and as he entered, he heard Raji and Damodar singing. A sudden surge of anger rose in him and he strode into the music room. He didn’t pause to greet them, and instead raged, “Don’t you both know it’s time for breakfast? Raji, go and help your mother. Damodar, have you forgotten that the auditor is coming to finalize the accounts of the newspaper today? Please meet him in the office. I’ll come too.”

As he left the room, Raji stared after him. What had they done wrong? Why was he so angry? She hurried after him. Damodar too left the room. That night, in the quiet of their room, Raji stood behind him as he sat at his desk writing in the light of the lamp. She gently massaged his neck for over 15 minutes before she felt the knots gradually loosening. He seemed less tense and she was emboldened enough to suggest they go to bed.

Subramanya was still simmering. He wanted resolution to questions that had gained strength over time and were sitting like monsters in his head. And he wanted resolution tonight before they destroyed their life. Without preamble, he asked, “Raji, are you and Damodar merely colleagues?” He waited, expecting Raji’s volatile temper to surface instantly. She wasn’t one to tolerate injustice. He was hoping to see that anger. It would have appeased him and told him all was well. Instead, he saw a shadow clouding her face. She looked away, as if to avoid his gaze. There was silence for many moments, each seeming like an eon.

Then softly, also uncharacteristically, she asked, “Why do you ask Mama? What makes you believe we are not?” Subramanya was a perceptive man. He had his answer. “He’s not is he? Answer me. I want an honest reply.”

They were sparring by now. One did not want to hear the reply, the other did not want to have this conversation. Raji, by stalling what could have been, had smugly thought she had buried a potentially destructive situation. But her mirror was not honest enough. It had not shown her all the undercurrents that she and Damodar were still battling but Subramanya had caught it all. He has seen the struggle, the clumsy attempts on their part to pretend their equations were the same.

“I’m waiting Raji, I need a reply.”

Mama, do you think a situation like this will get you a simple reply? If I say he is just a colleague and a relative, it will be dishonest. If I say he is more than that, it still won’t be an honest reply.” There was anguish in her voice by now, “All I can say is that I have not betrayed your trust in me. I never will.”

Subramanya muttered below his breath, “I knew something had changed. I knew it the very night I came back from the village.”

Again there was silence in the room. Why were they lost for words tonight? He switched off the light and walked towards the cot. But there was unfinished business. The conversation was incomplete. The tension was palpable. Raji’s upper lip was moist. What had she done to him? What would tomorrow bring? When day dawned they were both red-eyed and exhausted from lack of sleep. She had tried to snuggle in his arms as she did whenever she was troubled, but he had gently pushed her away. There was an invisible wedge between them, even if it was just one of suspicion, without substance. This was evidence that relationships were more fragile than china. Why hadn’t the rules of the universe worked for them?

Bharathi Ghanashyam

To be continued…

 

 

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