I was a thinking three when we went, my parents and I, on a wintry Bangalore evening to see our family physician. Bangalore got cold early those days, almost immediately after June. It also got dark early those days. Twilight is never a good time for anything except dread. The lonesome auto drearily stumbled on muddy lanes that concealed tar beneath them. My father’s arms poked through the warm, winter woollens I had on. I told him I was scared. He kissed me and said, “Me too. But we must be brave. You are a Fighter. Remember that.” And mother who was ‘Dirty’ not yet ‘Ma’, just a formal ‘Amma’ said again, “Don’t spoil her. Don’t fill her head with nonsense. Does she still have fever?”
The tall, fair, moustached doctor boomed a welcome in Tulu. “Bale bale, daane aandu?” Mother answered in Kannada. “Jora.” Poppa deposited me on the thin bed. I immediately felt cold and abandoned but I didn’t cry. I was a Fighter. I will always believe in Fight For Your Rights. I braved the cold even when my vision dimmed.
“Onji injection korpe,” the doctor pronounced doom.
I had been told how painful it would be. We had spoken about it in hushed, awed whispers after we played Doctor-Doctor. I couldn’t be those children who cried. I wouldn’t kick. I wouldn’t scream. I didn’t like Sarita. She didn’t even know how to hold my Radha properly. She had cried when she got an injection. I would not. And Gunda always said all kinds of things. I didn’t like him sometimes. But sometimes no one else played with me. He called me Divya. No one else called me Divya. He had kicked when he got an injection. Then he showed me how red it was by pulling his shorts down and turning away from me. I didn’t like seeing it. But Gunda was like that. I would not kick. I am a Fighter. But when the needle was ready, it looked sharp, big, like things I was not to play with. Dirty would scream if I did. I almost screamed. So I closed my eyes.
The doctor spoke to Poppa about how the monsoon was so heavy already in Kudla. They chatted about a Mangalore that was already home to me though I had never seen it. “Injection?” I murmured, finally daring to open my eyes. Dirty spoke kindly stroking my face with love. I liked Dirty when she spoke to me this way. This is how she would tell me stories from the Chandamaama. Otherwise she was always saying no or don’t. So I clung to her. Said “Amma”.
“Injection ayithu, putta.”
The doctor boomed a high-pitched laugh and asked if I wanted another one.
I shyly shook my head, whispered, “Ishtena?”
Is that all?
Not the kissing. Not even all the stroking in small cars, big cars, fancy cars, boxed cars; nothing ever prepares you for it. You read. You try and watch. No. Not even that. You only imagine what it would be like. But you are very young, even if you think you are old enough and mature. You think you are experienced because you have kissed and tasted, taken and given, whatever you can. But you are still too young to touch yourself there. You are still too innocent to know what real pleasure is supposed to be like.
You only have one idea.
You decide if anyone should take your virginity it should be him. The Highway Man as you have taken to calling him in your head. The Highway Man who was the best, most intense kisser you knew. The one who rode tightly on a bike whose sound was subtle and muted but a bike that could plunder the road with its power. The Highway Man had made you feel that marriage was a good thing. The Highway Man had studied in the same college in Mangalore as your father. His voice gets deep with pleasure when he speaks about Mangalore. You have been there only four times but you know it’s home.
The Highway Man was tall, and dark, and though you were unsure at the time, you had a feeling he was very good-looking. He spoke well, cockily, and even arrogantly. But immediately softened and held your hands, and licked chocolate off your swollen lip. Chocolate he had bought you even when you saw that his sneakers were torn. You didn’t care about that. You only wanted to kiss with a lot of tongue. And he had laughingly obliged. Soundlessly. And then you had been scared. You knew you wanted more. But you were only 18. You had met him just a day ago. So you picked a fight. He left. And you never saw him again.
But today he is back. After four years of waiting. After four years of not giving yourself, never fully, to any man. After four years of dating all manners of men trying to find him in them, even if for a moment. But he is special. As special as you are. You think you are very special. You think you know everything. At 22, it’s easy to see why you would think that. So you decide the Highway Man gets to complete what you had both started when younger, foolish, impulsive. You both laugh knowingly about how young you were. You think he will never be as young and confident as you because he is five years older.
Today, he has put on more weight. He looks like he works out in the gym regularly. You are rounded now. He squeezes your curves. You do yoga and can climb a door, a feat you will later use to have wilder sex but you don’t know it yet. When he squeezes your middle using both his hands as if to size you up, you feel fat. But you feel wonderful too. He has spoken about Lebanese women, Iranian women, and Indian women who are like sluts when they live in the Arab countries. You don’t care. You are sure you know more than anyone how it’s done. And he is going to claim your virginity now, you decide, in this hotel room in Bangalore.
You pull his face down to you on the large white bed in the white hotel room, with the TV blaring an Enrique Iglesias show. He raises his one perfect eyebrow at you and obliges laughingly. Soundlessly. This is the taste you looked for everywhere but never found. And this, exactly here, the feel.
I can be your Hero, baby.
Oh yes. O yes. O yes. You don’t realise you have actually moaned it. But his urgency tells you, you have. And there’s no stopping either of you. He fills you up. There’s not even pain. Only pleasure. So much pleasure that you wonder how anyone is supposed to live without it. Why did you live without it for so long?
And just as quickly it’s over.
He says, “I’m sorry I came early because it’s been too long since I did it. Did you come?”
“I think so,” you say, “How would I know? It’s my first time. Is that all it is supposed to be?” You giggle at how green you sound.
“Sweetheart, you sure don’t fuck like it’s your first time.” He turns you on your side and checks for blood.
There is no blood.
“Yes, that’s all it is. You are not a virgin. You lied to me. Why did you lie to me?”
“What?” You don’t know him well enough to know if he is joking or not. “What did I lie about?”
“Anyway, sex is all it is ever going to be with us now. I know you are no virgin.”
You are 22. Nothing in life, not the books you have read, nor the friends you have spoken to about these things, has prepared you for this momentous way of losing your virginity. You do the only thing you can think of.
Shut the fuck up you say to him.
You reach over for his cigarette pack. He deeply appreciates how your naked breasts squish his face when you do that. So he lights your cigarette for you.
I want to do it again, you say, after a few puffs in silence. He reaches over and cuddles you.
“If this is all it is, I want us to do a damn good job of the sex. I don’t care what you believe but I was a fucking virgin until ten minutes ago. You will teach me everything you know”, you say. You realise you sound like a twisted protagonist in a romance gone bad. The Highway Man is your Heathcliff.
You smile at that, stub your cigarette, and straddle him.
You laugh into his face.
“Is that all you can do, Mister?”
Five years of a twisted, ecstatic, and despairing relationship and she has finally put it behind her. Five plus four (if you count the waiting) plus two (if you count the getting over it). And finally it’s over in a way that today, doesn’t make her want to sink into the Arabian Sea in Panambur, the harbour beach, where she had played in the waters of Mangalore for the first time, with a grandmother she didn’t like. A grandmother who always spoke about dying but didn’t do anything about it. She, herself, would have died if she could have. But that phase of I-will-die-for-my-love; I-will-die-for-the-loss-of-my-love is also over.
Now there is this guy at work. A gentleman. A Brahmin, just like her mother. He likes rasam rice and beans palya. He likes uppittu with peas. Just like her mother. But just like her mother’s staunchly Brahmin family, he likes uppittu best with avarekai. She cooks it one day for him and takes it to work. She is trying to be a Brahmin now. She has broken away from the sea and the land of the sea folk whom she cannot ever escape, but she is determined to. She prays everyday. She puts the kumkuma in the parting of her hair and even wears mallige hoovu.
He says, “Namskara, heggidera?” to older Kannadiga colleagues and she is stunned. He never swears. But for all that he is also modern. He likes chicken biryani in the food court on Fridays. He has a tattoo. “I will never get a piercing or get inked like that!” she declares admiringly. He is perfect husband material. He is not tall. She forgets that she likes tall men. He is not physically demonstrative. She excuses that. She is all about being Brahmin now. So she decides she will pierce her nose. She asks his opinion. His eyes light up. But all he says is, “Your decision. Do what you think needs to be done.” She only blushes thinking about the way his eyes lit up. She is terrified though. She tells herself she can handle a small prick after all the heartache she has borne for years and years. She has no idea then that she has foretold her future. In a corner silver shop on Jeweller’s street, off Commercial street, Bangalore, she sits trying to strengthen her resolve. The smarmy goldsmith says, “I will at least mark the spot. You decide later.” She agrees. He comes at her nose with a heavy needle. “Wha…” And it’s done. Her mother laughs beside her.
“See? Your nose has been pierced. For this you were thinking so much,” he laughs.
She looks in the mirror and she is someone else. She can now see herself with a Brahmin. She says, “Is that all?”, reminding her mother of the child she had once been. She laughs gaily and shops for tiny nose-pins that will sparkle like his puppy dog brown eyes that she believes will never harm or hurt or cause her pain.
Five years later, she sees him outside a photocopier’s shop as she waits with her mother to get her copies. She is standing like a queen who at least owns the pavement in front of her. He sees her the same instant. She can feel both their hearts squeeze in that moment. He is married, soon to be divorced. Or maybe already divorced. She has ceased to care. Her nose-pin is no longer subtle, small, a winking diamond. She is a queen, more than she ever was. Her nose-pin is moonstone in silver and intricate and powerful. She has a kingdom to run now. He bends his head and walks away as quickly as he can. He almost runs. Her mother recognises him too. “Isn’t he…?”
She doesn’t respond but holds her head high as deriding, mirthful laughter bubbles in her. “Why has he become like that!” Her mother is shocked at his state.
He looks tiny. Lost. Pitiable.
She crushes her heel on the pavement as if to stub a shrinking, fading cigarette, and says, “Yes, that’s all he is.”
Strangely enough, I was on the same road, again, today.
I was getting copies again, today.
It was hot. I was sweating. I was in a skirt with Indian prints showing my smooth, banana stem legs, my feet flapping uncomfortably even in Osho chappals. The top was old, green, and flattering the globes on my chest while being decent and showing no cleavage. A fact that always pleased the parents. The red bag sat heavy on my shoulders with a hard-bound Manu Joseph cutting into my shoulder, its weight stretching my top and revealing part of my bra strap.
It was blissful. The heat, the flapping chappals in green, the good rush of a job getting done, and having a colleague to share it with; it was all blissful.
I have learnt to live in the present now. Most days, I do. Strictly.
And then I saw you.
And then we spoke. Desultory. Uninteresting.
I noticed that you looked relieved when you saw that I was not about to create a scene on the road. Psycho bitch. Stalker. Neurosis. The words popped in my head as I stared at how you mouthed pleasantries. I could feel you check my thick body out when the bare skin on my legs prickled and goose-bumped; when my breasts heaved within my green top; when it felt like the Arabian sea, was storming under my tight, grey-black printed bra, and crashing repeatedly against my chest.
So I raised an eyebrow and said, “I won’t keep you, then. Please go on with whatever you need to do.” I could have been speaking about our lives.
And that’s how I dismissed you from my sight.
It’s a pity you don’t sound like Jim Morrison, I thought. I needed to have one unkind thought about you to savour.
The girl with me said, “He was hot. And such a kind face.”
I said, “Yes. Well, that was weird and awkward.”
She said, “Really? Why? What? It didn’t seem awkward to me at all. What is it? Is he someone you don’t like? But why? He’s got such a kind daddy face.”
Such a kind face.
A face I was familiar with even though today was the first time I saw you.
In April, I was happy thinking about how we would date.
By May, I could almost taste our kisses. Breathless. Excitable. I would surely moan.
By the time May ended, I was struck by how clever you were. How much like me. Special.
June was a rude wake up call.
July, I learnt to live with the fastly ephemeral and illusory online world and how it differed from the real one.
You were just beautiful words with perfectly punctuated commas that meant nothing at all.
Not WYSIWYG like you had said you were, but What You Don’t Say Is Exactly What I Don’t Get.
“That’s probably because he must be a kind daddy to his two kids.”
“So he is a father? I knew it. He’s hot though.”
“Yes. He’s divorced.”
“No. Really? So sad.”
“O God. This is so awkward and weird. And strange. God. God. God.”
I am uncontrollable now in how much I cringe. I berate myself. How could I not have worn any lipstick today? Forget lipstick. I didn’t even have kajal on. How could I let myself leave home without make-up? God. God. God. No Gods. Fuck. It’s Gods, I think. I have Gods. I am Hindoo. I smirk to myself, smug and superior, and in what I imagine to be British condescension. I laugh in my own head. And then I remember how briefly you were a sort of muse.
And it’s a question now that haunts.
Is that all, then?