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Vulnerability was a luxury best left to the natives prancing on daytime television. For people like Veena the only acceptable solution to life’s turbulence was to shield it from the troubling view of others and herself. She never thought this perspective heroic: It signified busyness, an honourable preoccupation with the task of keeping familial strings tied. Maybe it was even noble, this ability to implode without explosion. Its reward was a bright glow of respectability that Veena emitted when walking along the Soho Road. Its luminosity was enough to make the most inquisitive of cashiers avert their eyes when handing change to her at the S and D supermarket. Her aura of aloofness was impressive, cultivated over many years to act as a buffer against those seeking to press their prying noses into her family’s business. It was a successful strategy, perhaps too much so.
No one said a word of comfort to Veena when Sanjay, her husband of 31 years, booked a one way plane ticket to India. He said he needed to ease some nebulous ailments affecting his nerves. “It’s my joints” he had mumbled to her one time before refusing the half hearted suggestion of seeking a doctor’s opinion. It was an excuse that merited the derision with which it would come to be met when it was shared like Prasad amongst the female congregants at the Union Row Gurudwara.
“The sun will heal me” he had told Veena during their final encounter on a warm May morning. “Yes” she replied and refused his shame the temporary relief of averting her eyes. A small suitcase was near the front door, next to the new loafers he bought to mark the occasion of going on an airplane. Johnny, a forklift driver from the Land Rover factory at which Sanjay had worked before he took voluntary retirement a month ago, was outside in his Honda Civic. Veena saw him through the front room window, his pale face subdued, even paler than normal. He looked like the driver for an unforgivable heist, the weight of his conscience preventing his feet from escaping his car. No doubt he understood the impropriety of approaching her front door with the unexpressed hope of “a little something spicy” as he usually did when coming to drop off a drill or a wrench that he had borrowed from Sanjay. But this was just Veena speculating. What she did know was that the world was intent on averting its attention from the calamity unfolding inside her front door. It was an indifferent world she had helped mould.
Veena looked quizzically at Sanjay, wondering why his cousin or, for that matter, any of the other Punjabi men that orbited the pubs in Handsworth, had not come to show solidarity at the moment of his valediction. It was a rhetorical question, barely worth articulating an answer to. No respectable man would countenance the shame of publicly abetting the abandonment of a wife. The unforgivable injustice would have to be confronted in every word their own spouses and mothers would speak forever more.
The marble stillness with which Veena stood before the suitcase was oppressive, for Sanjay that is. Perhaps he waited for an invitation to explain the reasons for the finality of a departure that was never declared between them but understood by both. It had been prepared for weeks to the oblivion of their children. He had wanted to place in Veena’s hands the scribbled address of the modest home he had built on the outskirts of Chandigarh. That would have lent a risible dignity to his departure. It would have been augmented by the confirmation that he would ring the kids, to let them know that he would not derogate from his duties as a father to stay in touch. If matters had been allowed to unfold in this way it would have been a respectable conclusion, something he could have lived peacefully with when sipping whiskey poured by a young live in maid on the little terrace that he had built. It would have been solemn. This he felt with all his soul. But this solemn respectfulness was denied to him. It was an affront, this denial of a final opportunity to stand in the sanctity of his masculinity. It was a truly terrible thing for him, this being made to feel like a child that deserved a scolding. The contemplation of the injustice of it all spun in his head like a Ferris wheel. It span and span until it span from his lips a few seconds later in a terse final comment he would come to regret, “You will always be miserable.” With that he clenched his jaw desperately holding back the vindictive vitriol it wished to unleash, he grabbed the little suitcase from the carpeted floor.
It was a pithy statement that utterly failed to impress upon his wife the wise consideration for the welfare of others that he wished to be remembered by. “I do this for the sake of all of our family’s happiness, including yours.” That was the phrase he had prepared but no longer had the temerity to utter. He saw little point in attempting to right the final impression however and therefore walked upright with his case as he carried it out of the front door. Veena’s gaze felt cruel and indifferent on his clammy back. Not a peep of remorse or anger left her lips to acknowledge all the years of entrenched warfare that defined their troubled intimacy. Troubled or not, it was still the process by which they opened their hearts to each other. It merited acknowledgement, a woman’s tear. Veena’s unblinking gaze was sufficient to give Sanjay a feeling of momentary vindication in his self effacement from family life, his withdrawal from a loveless partner. Perhaps it was the thought of the young maid that steadied his spirits as he walked out of the door. She would be a good acquisition to his new life, grateful for the reprieve from the dire poverty that would otherwise await her. Whatever desperate father he would come to negotiate with for the maid’s services would see the wisdom of the transaction.
Veena watched Sanjay go. It was a strange thing this departure. It felt unfinished, mundane even, as if it could be reversed if Sanjay recalled the case of Kronenbourg he was intending to buy that afternoon. Strange indeed. What was she to make of it all? Determining her feelings was a perplexing struggle, like peering into a deep fog and willing oneself to recognize a familiar shape, a friend who could help you make sense of your predicament. Not exactly a friend, more of an acquaintance did eventually emerge in view: Resignation stepped forward, accompanying her as he had 31 years ago when her mother and aunts had forced Veena to marry Sanjay under a veil of cajoling laughter. She had capitulated then with superficial geniality. That was to be expected. Marriage was inevitable so why not Sanjay? He wasn’t ugly from what she could tell from the passport photograph floated beneath her nose, and he had plans to emigrate, to leave the claustrophobia of village life and go to England where his cousin had settled. That was good. His cousin had waved the promise of a job in the car factory that would come to cement the identity of what he was to her forever more. A job offer was a blessing. Most men landed at Heathrow airport with little more than desire and vague assurances of employment leads to follow. Sanjay had something tangible to build his, and Veena’s, hopes around. Could the dream have been any better for a girl from the outskirts of Mahilpur? It was an unanswerable riddle to which all Veena’s friends sought the answer. Her mother had said no. Veena had acquiesced before her enthusiasm, ambivalent within. It was all so long ago now, not worth the constant attention the conundrum kept sapping from her. What was done was done. Resignation repeated those words he first whispered three decades ago.
Time had left an inch for each decade of marriage around her waist and gifted her and her husband a whole lexicon of curses by which they would come to address each other when yet another surreptitious money transfer was discovered to have ended up in a Jullundur bank account. Sanjay would tell her it was for his father’s medical fees, his nephew’s university tuition and for just about anything other than for his own two sons whose allegiance to their mother was unbreakable. In truth, the acknowledgement of Sanjay’s kinship to the boys was only ever referred to when flames of vitriol poured from Veena’s mouth to illuminate where his loyalty should belong. At all other times it never needed to be said that they were emotionally hers by irrevocable right and claim. They were hers, her foot soldiers who reveled in Dungeons and Dragons at 4.30pm, scowled at 6 if told to run to the liquor store by the father, and then stood by their general as she served their father roti, refusing his entreaties to eat with him. By 10 the two were in bed, resisting the urge to run down the stairs and overwhelm their father with screams of fidelity to their mother in case he should seek to carry out his threat to take them to India to learn the meaning of respect for the head of a household. This however was too much for Veena: The time for lights out was sacrosanct, inviolable. Her fierce gaze was enough to usher them back to their bedroom with a threat of fury if a yawn should escape their lips before they left for school in the morning. “No one is going to India” she would tell them, “but they are going to school to pass their exams unless they want to make me really mad.” There was a comfort in her madness, a rage of defiance on their behalf. It was love, and they knew it.
In a future time, when Sanjay’s suitcase on the doorstep was no longer a cause for expletive-laden rages amongst her sons, the Punjabi grapevine would creep through Veena’s letter box. It brought knowledge she was no longer sure of wanting. She too had relatives and they were inflamed at the suffering inflicted on their collective reputation as “a good family” eschewing marital disharmony – as if that was a choice they could make. Her cousin had posted her a couple of photographs of the little house Sanjay had built. A pretty little thing, it had a Bougainvillea pot by the front door in desperate need of watering. The battered Polaroids arrived in a blue envelope that took six weeks to arrive. The unspoken message was obvious: he knew where Sanjay lived, the destination at which their family honour awaited reclamation. All Veena had to do was say the word. This, however, was the last thing she wanted to do. The sense of foreboding was immediate. She therefore took the extraordinary and expensive measure of ringing her hot head of a cousin. She told him to leave Sanjay be. The last thing anyone needed was the instigation of a blood feud that would fester for a generation, manifesting in the machismo of teenage boys – cousins to one another – colliding at funerals and weddings where the inflammable mix of emotions and Bacardi never failed to detonate. Sorry histories of families perpetuating bitterness they had lost the key to understanding or quelling were everywhere. Feuds spread like viruses, replicating from Ludhiana to Leicester. She didn’t want that for her boys. They were only twelve, still young enough to follow the clichéd dreams of all boys in Handsworth of wanting to be car mechanics and Aston Villa footballers. If the decades of Sanjay’s ostensible largesse towards his family were fictitious then so be it. If he was the beneficiary of his own generosity (with her family’s money!) then so be it. If her own family was now reduced to its irreducible core then so be it. She had the house in England. She had the boys. She wasn’t impertinent enough to ask God for more.
Veena watched her husband close the front door and then watched through the front room window until he vanished towards Heathfield Road. Perhaps the lonely stillness of the moment was a grace, preventing her from heeding anyone’s advice to sit on the floor and temporarily fall apart, as one was supposed to do (that would be respectable), and then reconstruct herself by late afternoon to continue her duties as a mother, as one was also supposed to do. She tried to listen to herself, urging some faint murmur of wisdom to emerge like a rope she could hold. It was still only 11am, time enough to eradicate the physical remnants of a life before the boys arrived from school in 5 hours. The emotional remnants she would never acknowledge to exist. Perhaps she didn’t know they were there, or how to extract them. Instead, they would pierce her from the inside out at odd moments like when Jeet, her eldest by six minutes, first wore a suit six years later on his trip to a University admissions interview. The tall, slender silhouette that left her front door before sunrise to catch a train was painfully beautiful to her, a memory of a shadow that brushed against her when Sanjay’s hand was placed over hers for the first time in a public declaration of their union.
For a moment, Veena sat on the settee and gazed out of the window. The street was hollowed of all life. There was nothing indomitable or brave about the absence of her tears. Two days later, she would tell her sister on a crackly line that there was no need for histrionics. God would not pay any greater attention to melodrama than to her own muted stoicism in the face of adversity. Whether it was simply embarrassment at the prospect of airing her family’s dirty linen, even to herself, that prevented any display of emotion was a question she never considered.
At 11.15 the sun was still shining as Veena raised herself from the settee and methodically toured the house. In the front room she cleared the small drinks cabinet of four bottles of spirits and deposited them on the kitchen table. A further five were extracted from various locations including a shoe box tucked at the back of the bedroom closet she had shared with Sanjay, a winter coat in the spare room, and an old steel chest in which the couple had kept a plethora of items compiled exclusively to appease relatives upon her family’s infrequent trips to India. These included cotton shirts in boxes, and silk saris and bangles and all manner of items that could have been purchased in any little Punjab town absent the prized exoticism of having made the journey from England.
It was a modest tally in some respects. Veena could have sworn Sanjay had a permanent stash of Liquor bottles in the garage. There, however, all she found was the husk of his former retreat stripped bare of the expensive DIY gadgets that were previously lodged there. Perhaps he had sold them quietly or given them to his friends as farewell his gifts. He always did like grand gestures.
The alcohol bottles looked naked on the kitchen table, unhappy about their exposure to daylight and the gaze of puritanical eyes. Methodically, Veena purged the house of the traces of her husband, from the alcohol (down the sink), to the clothes (to Oxfam), to the frightful photograph of his parents that he hung in the living room as a visible reminder of where his principal loyalty had always belonged. Burning the sepia image was particularly liberating. She took a match to it in the garden and then lit a stick of incense as an almost whimsical atonement for the desecration of the ugly faces that had never done her a good turn.
When she finished, her exhausted frame returned to the front room settee and sat again. It was a Friday. That meant a trip to the butchers to get lamb or pork to prevent arguments with Sanjay over how the family deserved to mark the end of another crushing week. The week was done now. It had borne down on her the weight of a failed marriage, the manifestation of the razor-like threat of abandonment and here she still was. She was not crushed. She gathered her numbed emotions in silence and whiled away the afternoon with chores she could not remember doing. Time stagnated until colour returned to her cheeks and her life returned to her house, both limbs of it.
When the boys came home from school she stood, subdued, before their television ritual of cartoons before homework. She spoke a while. News of the day’s events was conveyed neutrally, accompanied by an implausible assurance that they would all see Sanjay soon. “Soon? What did that mean,” Jeet inquired, “a month, a year?” There was a tense silence when she whispered, “Don’t ask. All I know is that we are together. No one is leaving.” She noticed the way in which her sons looked furtively at each other to see if a greater light of understanding had fallen there than in their own minds and then returned their disappointed gazes to her.
An immense sadness pulled on Veena’s soul. She lacked the knowledge her sons deserved. Rehearsed words of comfort that she perfected before they had arrived from school had fled. What could she possibly tell them? Breathing heavily, she left for the kitchen before further questions of clarification could leave their confused minds. “I need to check something” she managed to get out before spinning away. They heard the kitchen door bang and lock and then the sound of water gushing in the sink. “I’m coming” she called. “Just wait a second.”
Upon her return, she again planted her lonely figure before the television. A raw softness to her authority evinced itself in quiet words that trickled from her lips: “Tonight we’ll eat lamb.” She lingered a second and awaited the difficult questions that failed to materialize. “Ok,” she mouthed inaudibly, “no need to speak. I hope you are hungry” she managed to add before finding her passive body gathered in a long embrace.