The Large Girl, a short story by Mridula Koshy

One of the best short stories I’ve read in a long time, The Large Girl, by Delhi-based writer Mridula Koshy captures so much about love and the social realities for  middle-class women in this complex city. It’s taken from Mridula’s 2009 collection If It Is Sweet, published by Tranquebar Press / Westland ltd., New Delhi. The book won the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize for 2009 and was shortlisted for the 2009 Vodafone Crossword Book Prize.

If you’re lucky enough to be in Delhi, you can get it in any bookshop, or in the UK at http://www.amazon.co.uk/If-Sweet-Mridula-Koshy/dp/9380032129

For latest news on Mridula’s writing, see: http://mridulakoshy.blogspot.com/

The Large Girl

She watches Devdas, remote in hand, so the magic of instant access to any moment in its 184 minutes of sequined shimmer is hers. She is a large girl. I knew her in school. She was there in school as early as Standard II, she tells me. But I didn’t see her till maybe VII or VIII. Overnight, she came to our attention because she grew boobs and kept popping her buttons. Then she did the long jump on Sports Day and her skirt did that thing cheap umbrellas do, spine buckling and bowl upturning to heaven. There she landed, and she was so pink, I thought: tulip.

Everyone else was laughing. But there were some things I knew even then, maybe about the world, maybe about me. In any case, the last thing I wanted to do was laugh. What I wanted was to slip my hands down those trunk-like legs. My own were so inadequate. What must it be like, I thought, to have so much?

In VIII she brought in a biography of Marilyn Monroe. Held between desk and knee it circulated down the row, across the aisle, down row two, and so on through the class: girls in one half, boys in the other. We flipped to the marked ‘hot’ pages, to the forty or so pictures in black and white, there to give some meat to the printed word, which in any case we ignored. Unlike the black- market quality paper with their bleed-through words elsewhere in the book, these thicker glossy pages in the middle were adequate to the task of delineating each angled thigh’s unsubtle and tight press to hide — what? Nipples pulled oblong by raised arms floated free in what was already let loose — levitating fruit — front and centre of head thrown back and wide arched smile inviting — what?

Pushpa, the idiot-mouse of our class, burst into tears. She was needed comic relief; the sacrificial victim of our collective misgivings. What had we seen and how would this act now mark us? There was a sense of class VIII’s free period having been turned, in Sridevi Nair teacher’s absence and with the aid of Janet’s wicked pinkness, into a communal orgy. ‘Quick, let’s forget.’

She was there till XII, and I knew her as the nun’s charity-case, the unclothed girl to steer clear of. The nuns would punish girls whose hems rode above their knees. How they allowed hers to creep up and up and stay there so that we were, I was, forced to obviate her — well, that’s a question between the nuns and their gods. Obviate her, I did. There are no other incidents to recount till we reached XII — just the buttons, the jump that tuliped her, and Marilyn Monroe.

*

Our last day in school, the girls wore saris, the boys wore suits, and we prepared to dance — girls with girls and boys with boys. The school’s Annual Day that year had revolved around a historical play, set in the colonial period, written by a team of nuns and credited to the Head Boy and Girl. For the play we had rehearsed a waltz fifty times in a day: boys in suits were paired with girls whose mothers cut saris into some understanding of ball gowns. On the strength of this earlier experience, the nuns urged us, the evening we danced our goodbyes, to pair up: boys with girls. The Head Boy and Girl to their, and everyone else’s, discomfort led the line-up and the rest of us, in one of those stray acts of shame-faced rebellion, refused to follow suit. And so it was I found myself in Janet’s embrace, and for the five minutes our feet described a dip- rise-dip square on the floor, I examined anew the corkscrew self, the twisting slumbering worm of me that had longed for this. Her hands on my shoulders and mine at her waist, and before or during that last dip, hers travelled as did mine from there to here, and then very quickly there were samosas and autographs and true and false expressions of sorrow across the throng of a 120-odd crying- smiling-unfeeling-anxious-about-to-die youngsters.

In school she was presented, whether by herself or by the nuns or somehow—as an orphan. But here’s the story she tells me now: her father arranged her mother’s death — murdered her. He was an electrician — stripped the insulation off the wire and lined it up so her mother would be the one to turn on the washing machine. He basically, as Janet puts, ‘fried her’. I read a short story, Hitchcock’s, once — same plot. Maybe her father read it too. But in his case the ending was different. Where Hitchcock’s man kept his mouth shut and got away with it, Janet’s father told his brother who turned him in. I have a brother and cannot imagine doing that — turning him in — no matter what the crime. Her father has been out of jail for some time. He’s written her, and she wants me to go with her to meet him. What kind of man would write his daughter thirty years after murdering her mother and expect that she would want to meet him?

Her favourite story — she reads it out loud to me, in her favourite reading position, lying full length on top of me, her belly smashed into mine, book propped on pillow above my head — is ‘Kabuliwallah’. She is addicted to my stomach. She likes that I am the one who has given birth and worked my way back to flat, whereas she . . . Well, I like her large and soft. She weeps in the reading. Every time. But how am I to weep when this is the fifteenth reading, and with every turn of the page, she must shift her weight and belly must renew acquaintance with belly with that sweaty, burp-cheer sound I find so funny. She weeps some more. Then she gets angry and says: ‘You don’t understand me.’

And even on those occasions when I accept this as truth, and there are more of these occasions than not — she still pushes to the inevitable: ‘How can you understand me? You are the little Miss Richie Rich who ignored me all through school.’
Here’s what I tell her. Here’s what I say that mollifies her: ‘God, give me another life so that I can do it right next time. Another life, so I can appreciate you and love you as you deserve to be.’ I deliver this without rolling my eyes. I don’t shrug my shoulders or in any other way temper the fact that I mean this with all my heart. This life has not been enough and will continue to not be enough to love Janet. And it’s not because her hunger is so beyond the pale. It just is the case that the love she wants is not in my means to give.

*

Here’s another story from the past that Janet’s father’s recent resurrection has laid to rest. For the longest time there was a rumour in school that she was not a complete orphan; that her father was alive, even if her mother was dead; that he was alive and — get this — sailing the seas, an Australian Sea Captain.

Why Australian? Don’t ask me. She likes her stories sequinned. She likes them to shimmer. So she embroiders. Some of us embroider, and others of us will briefly hold in our hands a particularly fine piece of embroidery, so we can admire the journey the needle has taken.

We did not believe this story in school, although it would have accounted for Janet’s name, her fairness, the breadth of her shoulders, her large bones. But she was not the first Anglo-Indian the rest of us had encountered, and her Australian-Captain-father only made the class titter. I know now where she got the story from. My daughter is eight and addicted to a character in a book series — Pippi Longstocking — an enormously self-sufficient orphan girl whose missing Sea captain father she claims is still alive — a Cannibal King marooned on an island.

My own father, mother, brother, daughter and husband are alive and well. My marriage has been a good one for nearly fourteen years. It was an early marriage. I agreed to marriage because I lacked the imagination then to see how else a girl might make a life. My imagination, Janet believes, has continued to be lacklustre, and so she attempts obligingly to fill in where she senses inadequacy.

When I loan her money for the one-plus-one in the Shahpur Jat area, she immediately has us moving in, not just my bed and dresser set which she admires, the cut crystal in the dining room display which is a wedding present from Mohan’s parents, but also my daughter Rohini, and even Mohan’s newest pup, Chetan. The thing about Janet’s claim to the gift of imagination is that this imagination of hers too conveniently, it seems to me, skirts the truth.

We go through a phase where she questions me endlessly about Mohan — his likes, dislikes. Yes, the likes and dislikes of our lovemaking are uppermost in her thinking. I never feel it necessary to answer these questions. But I have told her what I thought of him when I first saw him. We met at my house with the parents around, his and mine. I don’t count that as a first meeting. I never really saw him that day. No, the first time it was just the two of us was at the club near his parents’ home in Anand Niketan. He had more or less grown up in that area, and he met me at the club entrance with this certain assurance, and we went inside this room and talked. We passed through the topic of exes quickly, and I teased him some and asked him what qualities in him had attracted these other girls. He looked so terribly pleased as he said, ‘You’ll have to ask them.’

Then there was some fumbling when the waiter came, and he ordered club sandwiches for both of us. He apologised to me for not doing better with the waiter and told me then that this was his first time in The Room. The Room, being the room we were in, a room in which children were not permitted, a room meant For Adults Only. He had celebrated Diwali in childhood at this club and spent summers swimming in the pool and I suppose had become an adult and moved away before he could take advantage of adult privileges. He was feeling grown-up that day and so was I. So in the end I married, I think, because it was the grown-up thing to do and right that I should do it with this grown-up that I was becoming fond of.

Janet refuses to understand this story. ‘Yeah, so you are fond of him. But tell me you have the hots for him and I promise I will believe you.’ She doesn’t really want my answer. ‘You can’t say it, can you? Yes to hots? No? No hots.’ She thinks she is taunting me.
Or lying next to me, when I turn inviting her to spoon me, she will peel back instead and run her hand from my shoulder to my butt and slap me there and ask, ‘What’s his favourite part?’ If I remain silent she will pinch me. ‘Is it here, your butt? Men always like a woman’s ass. They never think to like her elbows or her toes. Or maybe he has a foot fetish? Does he? Maybe he sucks your toes, heh princess?’ It’s no good keeping my back turned. She will move on from favourite body parts to favourite positions. I turn to her and busy myself nibbling her front.

She keeps a picture of Rohini, and one of Chetan with Rohini, along with the many others of me in her room. She would no doubt have a perfectly imaginative tale with which to dress up the addition of Mohan’s picture to this tableau. I can’t imagine what this would be. In any case, I tell her, ‘No, it will make me uncomfortable’, and refuse her the picture when she asks. With Janet, the truth, if inconvenient, is something to be ignored. I can’t live that way.

*

Janet and I first run into each other in the parking lot outside my gym. She is coming out of a shop in the same complex. It turns out to be a beauty parlour, and she turns out to be working there. We light up, standing between the cars, breaking my big rule about public smoking. It would take any busybody in that gym, to whom Mohan is known, seeing me smoking, for me to get into a lot of trouble. For all that Mohan is a chain smoker, I am not permitted to smoke. On the rare occasion, say if we are good and soused, on an anniversary, at Buzz, or better still at The Imperial, and if I beg and nag, then, maybe then, he’ll light me one and hand it over.

But my girlfriends and I always smoke when we get together. We do it on the roof. I keep a mat rolled up on the stairs. We take it up with us when we go. Ours is a rented place, and I have done nothing by way of plants and things to beautify the roof. The mat serves to soften the crumbling concrete on which we crouch to prevent nearby tenants from invading our privacy. The mat is where Janet and I first kiss.

The first time we kiss, she lights a cigarette and passes it to me, and then she lights another one. We are talking, but not easily. After the cigarette in the parking lot, and the exchange of phone numbers, a month passes before I realise she will not be the one to call. I call. She comes over. There is the awkwardness of her taking in the toys scattered throughout the house — most of them Mohan’s, I explain to her. I am not the gadget freak, and the endless updating is his way of flexing his muscles.

She is subdued downstairs, but loud enough on the roof, so I am relieved when finally we sit quietly, leaning back against the short wall. I wish for time to get the clothes cleared from the line before they get infected with our smoke. But it is also strangely peaceful as they stir, combing their shade-fingers of coolness over us with each breeze. My shoulder is touching hers and she slides down and rests her head on my lap and from there squints up at me. She is still as she was in school — large hands and long legs. I am still as I was — content to keep within myself; my inner curve yearning in its own circular fashion, itself. So then why am I unfurling as she reaches for my face, her one hand doing the bidding and the other still locked on to the cigarette? A second passes, her hand is on my cheek, and I follow her example, my free hand cradling her cheek, so we are both leading and following together into that first kiss.

It is not a kiss to get lost in — we are each of us balancing, one half engaged in not accidentally burning the other. She flicks her cigarette away and with both hands pulls my head to hers. But I don’t have her sophistication or just plain old ease. I am still balancing as she searches my mouth — her tongue acrid, like Mohan’s.

I take to leaving her. After the first, second, third, fourth time, she stops mourning and starts instead to throw me out. I leave and the leaving is unbearable to me. For a day or two I remain gone from her. My last memory of her is of a graceless shrug of dismissal, the slam of her eyes shutting me out.

I leave her for many reasons. The first time — when Rohini comes up the stairs to the roof one afternoon, and the metal stairs, instead of clattering as I had expected, absorb her keds’ tread silently, and suddenly she is there — looking at us. ‘Mummy’, she says. She is wearing a stricken smile. She is saying with her eyes, ‘I don’t see you with a cigarette in your hand.’ She is saying, ‘I don’t see the pack placed square between you and aunty.’ ‘Mummy,’ she says, breathless from the run up the stairs, shamefaced from the discovery she has made. ‘Nina threw the frisbee hard at Indrani, and now Indrani’s nose is cut, and, and . . .’ she says, riveted by the competing drama of the story she has come to share and the story she has just discovered, ‘Indrani’s nose has sooo much blood coming out of it. It’s everywhere.’

For the next two days, I try to tell Janet we shouldn’t smoke together. I even tell Mohan the truth: ‘Janet and I were on the roof, and you know she smokes. Well, she lit me one, and the next thing Rohini was up there, and I think she saw us.’ Mohan does not get angry. ‘Let’s see if Ro says something. There is no need to bring it up if she doesn’t.’ After two days he and I agree Rohini has forgotten. But I remain frantic that Janet should understand why we can’t smoke up on the roof. The more she shuts her ears, the more determined I become that I will not only stop our little smoking ritual, but also that I will never smoke anywhere, for any reason, ever again.

I am supposed to go to her place some days later. I don’t. A week passes, and she texts me: ‘Talk?’ I can’t help myself. She greets me at the door, pulls me to her and kisses me on her side of the length of fabric she has hung in the doorway. My one hand automatically searches behind me for the wood beyond this cloth, till she imprisons my hand in hers, pulls it between us and slips something into it. Our foreheads are touching and we both look down to what our hands are doing—transferring fruit—light green and translucent, from hers to mine. Then, she looks straight into my eyes and hers are smiling. ‘Amla,’ she says. ‘It will be the oral fix you need to quit cigarettes.’ My mouth is already puckering. The fruit is sour and tense in taste, but leaves the mouth sweet and wet as if washed with rain.

We kiss, and I forget about the door. She shuts it in the end, pushes me ahead of her into bed. But the amla is really only for me, and afterwards she lights up as always, ashing her sheets, pillows, my hair.

The fighting continues. It becomes about her father. She insists she needs me with her when she goes to see him for the first time. I tell her, ‘Faridabad is too far away. How will I account for a whole morning, afternoon, and evening?’ She is stiff in anger: ‘You spend the whole afternoon here. No problem.’

‘But’, I say ‘I am always there to pick Rohini up at 3:30’.

‘Tell your husband to get her this once.’

‘No, I can’t. He doesn’t like to interrupt his work like that.’

‘This is important to me,’ she says.

I don’t believe her. Her neighbour has told me that her father has already been by to see Janet. I wonder if perhaps they have met more often than this once.

I don’t say to Janet: ‘You’re a liar.’ I wonder why she wants me to see him. She has not repaid me the loan which I wheedled out of Mohan. I wonder if she is going to ask for more money; if, perhaps, her father needs money. I don’t say: ‘You’re a liar.’ Instead I say: ‘No’. Then, ‘The truth is I am a married woman. And a mother.’

She says, ‘That’s never been a problem. What’s there in that?’

We are silent. I think about her father in her room. I wonder if he wondered what we — Rohini, I, and not to forget Chetan — are doing on Janet’s walls. I wonder what story Janet concocted to explain us to him.

‘Why do I have to meet your father?’

She regards me seriously. ‘I just want him to know that I have a good life. And you are part of what makes my life good.’

But I feel stubborn. ‘No’, I say. Mostly I am thinking, ‘Why do I like her? She is so vulgar.’

I cautiously tell friends from school that I have run into Janet, and their reactions are uniformly similar. I think it is Shilpa who says, ‘She must have had a hard life,’ and I concur.

The last time we are together at her place, she meets me first at the bottom of the stairs leading up to her flat. She is four floors up, and the walls all along the climb are repulsive, stained with the spit-splat of paan. On the second floor landing someone has lined up some potted plants on either side of their front door, and taped to the wall is a sign pencilled in Hindi: ‘Spitting on Plants is Not Permitted.’ On the flight up from the third floor landing she turns to me and says, ‘You’re having your period.’ I nod, and she adds, ‘I can hear your pad rustling.’

The very last time we are together, she kisses me under my stairs. She has thrown me out the week before when once again I refuse to accompany her to her father’s. She says that he is asking to meet me. I am adamant in my refusal. At the end of a week’s silence, she shows up and gestures to me from the service lane that fronts my place. I wave back to her from the upstairs balcony, more to reassure the flower-seller who is studying the proceedings, than to indicate any sort of welcome. But then she crosses the lane, comes in the gate to the front door, and I pull her in from there. She takes her hand out of her pocket and, glistening in her cupped palm, are two amlas. I rest a fingertip on one and gently rock it in her palm where it bumps repeatedly its sister-self. And again Janet and I are facing each other. She is my height, I realise: her largeness is all in her breadth. There is a way we line up — eye to eye — that feels like pleasure.

‘Take it,’ she indicates the amla with her chin. I take one, and she folds her hand shut over the other. ‘You don’t want us to continue?’ she asks.

‘No.’ I am wooden. ‘Janet, I don’t want to be destructive in any way. In my life or yours. You have to understand that.’

‘Tomorrow?’ she asks, ‘You won’t change your mind?’ ‘No, Janet. Tomorrow, I won’t change my mind.’ She kisses me before she leaves. This, our last kiss, is quick. It is a kiss of dismissal, but also sweet. In the lean of her face, I feel her eyelashes brushing mine, and her tongue has no anger to it; nor any persuasion.

A time will come — a time that is starting now — when I will no longer know her. I will attend the Jahan-e-Khusrau festival and, sitting in the last rows, I will be surprised to see Anju seated two seats away from me. We will press hands across people’s laps, and I will be embarrassed as I tell her that I will come soon to pick up the tailoring I have left at her boutique some months before. She will laugh and say, ‘I have kept it all together for you. It is ready.’ Rohini will place her head in my lap and ease the mobile from my purse and proceed to play a game on silent mode. I will be irritated and will want to scold her to enjoy the music. Mohan will put a hand on my knee and will still me. We will whisper together and wonder who it is that owns the splendid house with lit banks of windows overlooking Humayun’s tomb and the festival. ‘They are so lucky, dining there on the roof top,’ we will think. The next day, I will meet at a party one of the diners from the night before. And I will exclaim: ‘This is such a small city. I never thought . . .’

At Café Turtle, I will overhear a man talking about Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, and the next day the same man will be at Confluence, with another woman this time. He will turn out to be an authority on steel sculpture. I will meet him, and he will talk shyly about his expertise. It will be on the tip of my tongue to say to him, ‘What a small world we live in. Just yesterday . . .’ But he will break in and say much the same words to me.

I will stand one evening, in line, at the PVR in Saket, and Mohan’s attentiveness will leave me feeling cherished. He will agree to watch Memoirs of a Geisha not because it is the only movie showing at 5:15, but because he will know how much I will enjoy this movie. In the next line, we will see our old neighbours quarrelling and we will happily embrace them. It will have been years since they vacated from above us.

I will begin soon to live all the days ahead of me. In the afternoons, I will think: Do you miss me? Do you miss me? A thousand and one chances will come and go in this small city, in this small world. I will never see you again.

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