The Girl Who Couldn’t Love

By Shinie Antony

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This time before the blackest bird known to man opened its beak I knew who was coming to dinner. He had made his way to me last week on the terrace of a local architect whose parties tend to be a boozy flaunting of renovated properties.

‘You live in that white villa by the beach,’ he had said.

I gave him a cool look, keeping my surprise to myself. I took my time responding to this opening line, full of over-familiarity, unsure then as I am unsure now of his intentions. Introduced to me as an artist, at first glance he seemed to live an indolent translucent life made up completely of sequins, the kind I see as sin. If I was tying myself up in knots over my guilt of not doing enough he made a virtue of his uselessness. ‘What do you want with me, I am killingly dull.’

He looked delighted. ‘I am insane about dull. You see, I am high drama, I need neutral.’

‘The self-proclaimed bad boy,’ I said,yawn in voice.

He winked. ‘The self-proclaimed good girl.’

Giving him a pained look I turned to a widow with readymade sob stories who received me, conversationally speaking, with open arms. I did notice him here and there, an integral part of loud lamp-lit laughing groups, but some gut instinct made me not look, not listen. I had this clock-set life I was proud of and nothing and nobody could alter the tick and the tock of it.

So it came as a surprise when I walked into my home after a hard day at work, teaching insolent adolescents the rudiments of English grammar, to find him ensconced in my drawing room chatting up my semi-blind mother.

They both looked up mid-laugh, mid-anecdote, as if I was the intruder. I feigned a smile.

‘Have tea with us,’ he said, oblivious to the irony of hosting me in my own house.

‘I don’t drink tea,’ I said, still smiling that strange non-smile.

‘She doesn’t drink tea, no sweets, won’t touch rice…’ my mother launched into her usual litany.

‘I have already informed him, ma, what a bore I am.’

They laughed again, disproportionately loud, as if I was a hilarious little thing. Adding over my shoulder that there were indeed some beverages I drank without reserve, I excused myself to my room, to wash and change. By the time I came out, he was preparing to leave.

‘Roo, you tell him to stay. He may listen to you,’ my mother said.

‘He must have friends his own age he wants to spend the evening with. How can we monopolize him like that?’

‘Roo?’ he said, shaking his head as if in wonderment. ‘What a lovely name.’ I gave him a discouraging nod, lest he felt free to use it. ‘My mother is just too lazy to say the full name.’ I didn’t tell him this was what my father used to call me, that after his death my mother used it not as a term of endearment but to resurrect him between us when the mood took her. Also, ‘Rudrakshi’ was one consonant too many; thankfully, one is exempt from mouthing one’s own name.

I walked him to the gate, more to see him off the premises. And he knew, if his Pied Piper smile was anything to go by, that I was curious, generally curious, about him. But I was no brawny-tawny rat tumbling after anyone.

He looked at me sideways. ‘So what do you do, apart from looking so… attractive?’

‘It’s a fulltime job,’ I came back blandly. ‘No time for anything else.’ You can’t take me out of the shop, I have a bar code.

His cycle was leaning against a hedge ahead, how had I missed it on my way in? He paused, one foot on a pedal.

‘Have we met before?’ I burst out without thinking, because it occurred to me right then that we may have; that would explain away the mild déjà vu. ‘I mean before the terrace thing?’ But the moment I asked this I realized how banal it was, this feeling we had met before just because at some basic level everyone looks the same. A nose here, a mouth there, two eyes, limbs four – how different can anyone look from anyone? Same species, he and me.

Again the slanted look. ‘We were always walking towards each other, with a dim memory of never having met.’

I tried to look like, yes, yes, I know which famous poet said that. He cut through with an ‘I composed it for you, Roo, on the spot’, leaving me a little cross.

After he went I studiously avoided asking my mother anything about her impromptu guest, afraid it would come out all censorious as also kick-start an avalanche of unwanted laments from her; of being too lonely, of me not making an effort, of this, of that. I did not want a migraine of my own making, I wanted a quiet evening with my Marquez. And perhaps some red wine.

But my mother took it upon herself to enlighten me about our recent visitor. ‘His PhD was on papa’s books, you know. He came to tell me that. Such a polite boy.’

I felt a frisson…. of some long-forgotten feeling. ‘Oh,’ I said. I had not looked at papa’s books, mostly literary criticism essays on Shakespeare, in a long time.

‘You know how papa was, always in his students’ lives. Not like you, you keep such a distance from the children you teach. You are not a teacher from here.’ She touched her chest to indicate the heart, but her hand was on the right side of her chest.

‘I know, ma,’ I said on reflex, not wanting a negative catalogue of my teaching methods yet again.

She sighed. ‘He took me back to the old days. To when your father was up at the crack of dawn, ransacking his own library, the bookshelves, for the smallest reference he had to make in class that day, to get it right. Such dedication…’ She lapsed into silence.

‘What is his name?’ I asked impatiently.

My mother looked back blankly, as if my face and voice were fading into the ether. For a moment there she must have thought I was asking her husband’s name and for a moment there she must have forgotten her husband’s name. Then she commented on the saltiness of the daal and we quite forgot the artist man and his chattiness that brought papa flickering back to life briefly between us.

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