This was originally published in The Affair, an online literary magazine from India, one of the best there was. I recently realised that that website is defunct and so I am posting here. A reader, who loved it when it was first published, told on Facebook, “Not for the fainthearted.” and I would have to agree. So, dear reader, you have been warned. The poem was first written and published here.
PMS: Please Maintain Silence
“But how many lovers has this poet had?” he says.
And I sit up straighter in the chair.
The ‘he’ is the intellectual, spiritual snob in my class who likes to quote Kierkegaard. The baser instincts of lust and love are completely bourgeois, Madhav Rao likes to say.
“Kierkegaard says that we must always strive for the improvement of our soul. The positives in this poem that I see, therefore, are that I am being exposed to sexual writing. But I am a logical person. What is worse is that I am spiritual. So I really want to know. How many lovers has this–-can I say poet–-had?”
It is no surprise to me that he doesn’t get the idea of the poem, which is not about the number.
I am trying very hard to act blasé, which means that my ears are turning red. Soon it will be my cheeks. If I continue to act blasé, I will get a butterfly rash and look like a patient with Lupus in exactly five minutes.
Fortunately for me, I am not expected to answer while being workshopped or they will know by my husky timbre that the brash, loud, mostly rude classmate is not so put together and invincible after all.
But then, Amanda Ma’am, our facilitator speaks up. “I wondered the same thing too”, she says unexpectedly. Amanda Campbell – I call her Amanda Ma’am because it suits her – is a feisty, single woman all of 65 who only wears pleated skirts in grey and black with paisley printed shirts. Her breasts sag under her shirts and she smells like Yardley Lily of the Valley. We are a small group and informal in this workshop. She insists I shouldn’t call her Ma’am. But that’s my brash persona; I will do just what I want. She is not Indian, she told us in the first class, she is of Irish descent. She loves Yeats and Seasmus Heaney. She had once told me that my poetry is reminiscent of Seamus Heaney and that had made my day. Yet here she is today.
“How many lovers has this poet had?”
I gnash my teeth silently. I am dramatic like that. This is not going as I expected. I have a headache that has begun at my left temple. It is going to be a long, unending session now.
Babita Soundar, the offspring of a Sindhi woman and a Tamil Brahmin man, pipes in. She has the sharp cheekbones of Sindhi women and the curly hair of her father. Cheerful, young, all of 22, she is a surprise to me. I never expected to get along with her because I dislike young girls intensely. However, in the past four weeks, I’ve ended up liking her the most in class. She balances all of us; that is her role. She adds harmony. She’s also unimaginably clever and sensitive. And fun.
“Let’s count. First there is the you in the lover, then there is a blue-eyed lover, then there is the past lover, who is bad and terrible. Then it’s the same you as the beginning…”
Unexpectedly, my heart beat quickens at the mention of his blue eyes so casually in conversation. He was a friend, almost a brother. And, somehow, in the most real sense of the term, a husband. I met him the day I landed in Pune. He was exasperated that the taxi driver couldn’t understand his English. I translated and he insisted I share the taxi with him when he learnt that I was going in the same direction. Two strangers in one city. It was inevitable. I started living in his fancy apartment because we had so much fun together. I cooked for him, cleaned for him, fought off Airtel for him, and answered calls for him. The apartment staff and colleagues assumed I was the wife. At least a glorified mistress. But since we slept in separate bedrooms, they were kept guessing at all times. It didn’t help that our hands would gravitate towards each other mid-conversation in a crowd and he would hold mine tight and not let me go. And that I would lean back, lean in, and rest on him as we chatted with others. But we were never lovers. That was indeed too base for what we had.
I could see myself for the very first time in life as a good wife, even a great wife. I had a lot of baggage about that thanks to my previous failed relationships. But now, I could do wifely things. I could manage his household for him.
I started addressing him as my husband. His free spirit and love of solitude rebelled at being labelled so. We fought. I finally ran to my tiny one-room apartment till he came by with flowers and tears, looking like an impressionistic painting. Then, he accepted it. Called me ‘wife’. We became closer, and I grew eager. I grew greedy. I was his wife. He was my husband. He was the man I had been the closest to in the two years it took trying to make a new city home. I was alone. This non-Indian was all I had as home in Poona. And so I decided, when I was 32, that I could have his babies. Our more adventurous friends shrieked and said “What a perfect idea.” The ones who grew quiet, like my parents and a few close friends, broached the idea of responsibility. A multi-racial baby of a single Indian mother? What would people say? It was bad enough I was writing erotica on the side. It was a good way to make easy money. A content manager gets paid only so much. Did I have to compound that by having a child out of wedlock? And that too with a foreigner? What would I do? How would I bring the baby up?
I would wail, “The baby will have my curly hair and his blue eyes. She will be so beautiful.” And they would ask us, “How will you bring this beautiful child up, though?” As tears would well in my eyes, he would say, “You are my wife, no? I will look after the child if the clinic does its work and we make a baby.” And so it was that with him that I felt the most married. I felt like a wife. Is that love? Without sex? Would that make him my lover? Would that make him an ex-lover now that we no longer spoke? I don’t even remember why we drifted apart any more. Last I heard he was in Australia. And so, I packed my bags and came back home to Bangalore and joined a theatre group. When that didn’t fill the ache, I joined a poetry workshop. And here I was.
Hemant Chaudhary, our answer to the inevitable Bengali import in all art-related courses, raises his voice after coughing thrice. He’s harmless, if anal about grammar and punctuation, and very verbose. It’s as if the British Raj still needs to be adhered to. He strikes out the multiple exclamation marks we deliberately use in our poetry–-my idea this–-in green. And to show he is harmless he adds a sad smiley like this one. 😦 But he still can’t say the word communication without sounding like a Bengali whose mouth is stuffed with luchi and potatoes. The idea of food nauseates me now. All that oil. I am coming down with something for sure.
“What I didn’t understand are the personal pronouns in this poem. There are simply too many of them. Communication should be simple, I always say. But then, of course, that is just my personal opinion. You are all free to disagree. Like my question, given the caveat that too many personal pronouns are confusing if they are all inhabiting the same poem, is: who is the ‘you’ in the beginning, and again in the end?”
The ‘you’ in the beginning was the man who held me all through the last year when I was alone and looking for meaning in life. The man who promised me a baby–-not a blue-eyed one–-but a regular Indian with Indian preoccupations of Engineering studies, negotiating girlfriend and relatives, of becoming a breadwinner, and most of all being seen as male. He was sure we would have a son together because I wanted to have a daughter so badly. And also because he already had a daughter with his wife who was still his wife. By then, the doctor had told me I would not conceive easily. I had female problems. That’s the way we don’t talk about what ails more than half of our Indian girls. We never talk about PCOD or hypothyroidism. I had both. But men in India didn’t know what that meant, really. Madhav and Hemant would die of embarrassment if we discussed it in class. So Babita had one day. She can never have a child either because they cut her ovaries off. Endometriosis, she said. Her poem was titled Padma Lakshmi. That day we had laughed and laughed after workshop, reliving the horror on the men’s faces. At 22, you are happy if you can’t have children, and have been accepted to do an MFA in Iowa. At 33, where I was, I wanted that son he promised me through old Dev Anand melodies and romance that happened wearing saris. So we tried making babies. We thought if our carelessness made us parents, we would become husband and wife. But after, he developed cold feet. What if he really had to leave his wife? What alimony would she ask? And how long would I bear the stigma of being an unwed mother of a baby made with a married man? Time, cliché alert, was of the essence. For his divorce, for our hurried civil wedding, for my pregnancy. It all had to happen within nine months. So sensibly, within 24 hours we had to locate an open chemist who sold us the emergency contraceptive. A hundred odd hours wasted in wait and longing. A hundred rupees and some change to wash away a sin that felt so bloody right.
“Baby, you know, we’ll make a baby together, no? This is just not the right time. I promise you, once my divorce is done, I will keep you pregnant forever, if that’s what you want. Ignore the doctor. And don’t think of blue-eyed babies.”
Once the divorce is done. Another cliché alert. No married man ever leaves his wife. The wives must feel reassured, really. He just won’t.
But yes, he would count as another woman’s lover.
“This is my favourite part,” Prarthna Prabhu gushes, ignoring as usual the thoughts around the table. Adorable Prarthna who will never know what a feminist she is. Prarthna who will toe the line of arranged marriage, EMIs on a flat on Sarjapur Road, and keeping in-laws happy with pathrode and occasional gad-bad ice-creams because feminist thought when it applies to life will fuck you over. So she appreciates the idea and the literature, but she won’t live it. Maybe I should be more like her. “The humour in ‘Your mother will only think you have been had’. That’s a brilliant pun. I really hate this man who is so useless. I don’t know why the poet, I mean, narrator, sleeps with him.”
You and me both, love, I think. My face wears an approving, almost amused smile. I am encouraging them, silently willing them to see what a feminist I am. Such a bold poet. Clearly, one who will not be hurt or cheated by anything as lowly as a man. I want them to know how even so, a woman can slip, trip, gash herself, bleed on the wayside because it’s not the man but another woman who wants to see you desperately unhappy. The dreaded anti-hero martyr in all of Indian cinema. In one word: Ma. And always his.
The smile fades. I find myself ridiculously close to tears. PMS. It has to be PMS. That’s why I am feeling so sick. But I have another 10 days before I get my period, I know. That means this month is going to be really bad. I will have to make excuses at work again and I will have to watch my tongue. It will be best if I don’t speak. I will have to watch my temper especially now, here, in the class. I will have to see the doctor again, and meet the counsellor maybe? If I am lucky, I won’t be late this month.
It was never this bad. She did it for me. Ma. Sarala Singhania. A proud name for a proud woman whose son looked like Rahul Gandhi, our colleagues said. And the heart-throb and blessed catch of every woman in Shibum Technologies was in love with a 30 year old, curvy bodied, boldly attired Communications Manager. Me. I was the one he would always talk to, sharing stories of how Sarala never made lunch and sent him off with leftover rice and curd mixed together so that in school his was the tiffin box that always stank and he was made fun of.
Thayir Saadham they called him. TS. Not Tarun Singhania but Tayir Saadham. I was fat, he said. I thought he would be more sympathetic about my curves. “I love your body, honey. But Ma, Ma wants a thin bahu, you know. It’s a class thing. Do you think you can lose 25 kgs? It’s not much for my Ma to ask, surely. She’s agreed to this match. She even agreed to getting married in court. It will be a simple affair, just like you always wanted. And then, we shall make babies.” His hand wouldn’t even touch mine. So one night I took advantage of the fact that we were spending a night together because we were stranded with a flat tyre. We booked into a hotel and he asked for a single bedroom. I looked at him aghast. “Honey, please understand, Ma doesn’t know you came with me to the meeting. If I show her the double bedroom bill, she will ask all kinds of questions,” he whispered as the receptionist stared at me pointedly. She said she would charge a hundred rupees extra along with VAT. He nodded. We huddled uncomfortably on the single bed. Our wedding was a month away. I had quit the company and was serving my notice period so I could practice being a Singhania bahu. I couldn’t afford the double bedroom bill even if I wanted to. Is this my future, I wondered. I couldn’t sleep so I switched on the TV and bumped my head because the room was that tiny. California Dreaming played on MTV Classics and he didn’t even ask me if I was hurt. He just touched me. I melted. But then he stopped. So I had to do the work. And I was thinking, this is wrong. How can Tarun not be a good lover? But I kissed him. He turned away. Ma will know, he said. Ma. She did know. And she still broke it off. And she said, she would always be my friend. “Beta, Tarun, na? He’s so strange. I understand your pain. But what to do. I can only do so much.” And I remembered how much I had done that night to make him come. After, he had slapped my butt and whistled an aria. A week later he had stopped meeting me or even taking my calls. Not even when I emailed him proof that I was leaving Bangalore and moving to Pune on work which meant I knew our marriage was off, which meant I had accepted it. I wanted him to at least say bye. Only Ma would speak on the phone to me and mouth platitudes. ‘Beta, so young you are na, this family shamily is not for you. So clever also. A writer, Tarun told me. Be happy. Someday you will find a good man. Not like my Tarun but everyone can’t have whatever they want, no? I am large-hearted like that. I am still trying for your sake. After all, you had sex together. Beta, who has sex before marriage? Something against premarital sex your parents must have taught you, na? But in some families these days, especially, middle class, no, they don’t have our values. In my house, it’s different. A girl, na, she has to be responsible. We, women, can’t do things for one minute of pleasure.”
I hadn’t come at all. Not even for a minute. And her heart seemed to be the only large thing in their house. I faked it. And when I hung up on her that night, I vowed to myself that I would never fake it again.
Yet here I was in class, faking it. The attention was on me. I couldn’t reach into my bag and pick my stash of blue Spasmoproxyvon that has been banned because Nepali boys get high on it. That’s what the chemist told me. My gynaecologist said that it was the only drug that would make me human during PMS and the actual periods. I had no reason to doubt her any more. And resourcefully, I had found me a man who would buy these blue capsules for me on the black market. No, I cannot let them see me pop a pill. Already, I feel, I am slipping from Seamus Heaney level simplistic greatness to the obfuscation of an amateur poet who thinks she is a genius. I cannot add pill popping proof to being wannabe literary and messed up. But one blue pill will make it bearable though.
“What are these blue pills though?” Kirekegaard strikes again, startling me. Fuck. This workshopping of poetry is too bloody personal. Intrusive. I should never have joined this course. “I only ask because I feel this is what changes the tonality of the poem. Much like Kierkegaard said you know: face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are. I think it’s Viagra. But why is she, I mean, the poet, I mean the narrator, buying Viagra?”
“Sweetheart, I will fuck you till I die. You know, I will not lose my hard-on for you even when I am old.”
“What? You want to fuck me when you are 85? You will have to take Viagra then and I am not even sure that will help you.”
“Come here, just one second, and I will show you how Viagra should actually work.”
“I can’t. I have my periods.”
“It’s icky, no? I don’t know.”
“Sweetheart, it’s you. Nothing about you is icky.”
“Really? Then why won’t you go down on me? Why am I the only one giving oral sex?”
“Except that. Besides, you don’t like it. Now come here, my Aunt told me that having sex when you have periods will ensure you have no cramps or even PMS the next month.”
“What village tale is this? And why is your Aunt talking to you about these things?”
“Sweetheart, this is the Aunt who first showed me how to fuck a woman. We are close.”
“Ugh. Gross. That’s bloody incest. That’s also molestation. How old were you?”
“12 or 14, I think. So what, it happens everywhere. She was good. I like her. Anyway, all you writerly types must analyse everything and twist everything. Life is simple, sweetheart. Uncomplicate. Suck me.”
Strangely, the technique had worked as long as he was there. PMS was low, low, low. Negligible. But I was also young. Only 23. What did I know? And he was the one I thought about when I was fucking Tarun because he might have dumped me after six long years of all kinds of sexual positions, but at least he taught me how to have great sex. He taught me to be a Goddess in bed. He is the reason I could write erotica on the side and make money. And money was the reason he had finally left me. “Sweetheart, I’m sorry. But this babe my father wants me to marry has six factories in Coimbatore and they are my caste. She is the only daughter and child, like you. I can’t give up all that money now, can I sweetheart?” Now, suddenly, I am feeling light-headed. It’s the worst PMS in a long time. I am hungry and I want the class to end.
Hemant wants to sum up the experience. I know he is dying for a smoke. We have been at poetry for three hours now. “Frankly, there needs to be enjambment. I am not even sure it looks like a poem now. But when you see how bold the narrative is, it’s commendable, I think. Except the end. Is the ‘you’ in the end, the reader? I felt uncomfortable reading the end. The pronoun confusion again.”
“This was published in UtterlyVagina, no, Divya? I read it then and loved it. I think it’s more of a female thing. Men, I can see, don’t understand. The ‘you’ is the reader, I think. We are judging this poet. We are judging women in our society always.” Prarthna springs to my defence.
I smile weakly. I’m really ill and trying hard not to let it show.
Amanda Ma’am doesn’t meet my eye. Something has changed. Babita has gone quiet too. But then she says, “I feel sorry. This is a poem about loss. Impermanence. All she wants is to have a baby, and she can’t. So I think there are only two people in this story. The current lover who buys her the contraceptive and her own voice. Everything else is what she’s thinking. Her desire for having a baby never being met. And her sense of loss at being judged even though she is really the victim here. But by writing this poem, she isn’t a victim any more, you know?”
That’s Babita. I told you, she always surprises me. I nod gratefully. I am still not allowed to speak. The irony is not lost on me. When Amanda Ma’am speaks, it’s to conclude the class. I can tell she is pissed. She offers no insight. I expect none. I have been judged and found wanting. As a woman. As a writer. As a student.
“Divya, please read the poem out loud. Poetry, as I always say, must be read aloud. It’s been a great discussion, class.”
And so, I pretend to arrange the printouts and buy time to read. I am low and hesitant now. Close to tears. This is a poem that’s already been published by a feminist magazine in the US yet I feel hollow. Cold. I am done. I see the value in being the Victorian ideal of ‘girls must be seen and not heard’. But then my ‘fuck you, world’ attitude kicks in. The anger rages. Fire burns in my stomach. I meet everyone’s eyes, being the drama queen I am. I open my pill box and extract a blue Spasmoproxyvon and dry swallow it. Babita smiles. Prarthna nods. This workshop will be over as soon as I read aloud. I think I will share a smoke today with Hemant. And so I start. I read softly at first, distancing myself from the text.
But then, I am the poem.
PMS: Please Maintain Silence
I owe you 100 rupees for that emergency contraceptive you bought me.
And another five to include the VAT.
A necessary precaution for an imagined possibility.
The thought of a baby that just wouldn’t go.
So you showed me blue-eyed dogs in a dhaba that afternoon and told me that’s the sort of children I would have if I went ahead with my plan, and made babies with a blue-eyed man.
What a jealous bear, you are, I said. Stealth was never your thing.
And I was glad I could kiss your mouth, stained as it was with the red curry of lunch.
Jealous bear, I repeated, and smiled.
It set me thinking about what a hairy man that last lover was.
Though, lover is hardly mot juste if all a man did was lie in bed, and wait to be serviced and then complain that he had lipstick, on his pale pink lips.
Would he be a lover still?
And whatever would his mother think!
Only that you’ve been had, love, I joked.
But he didn’t find it funny.
It should have told me something that morning, should have.
That I rode him all the time wishing, hoping
You and I would get to do it again. And wondering again if you’d trade me for wealth, and become another millionaire among the many in Moscow.
This is your problem, you said, you read too much.
No good has ever come from a girl who reads.
Less from one who shags me.
We can’t remedy the latter, but must you be masochistic and add reading to your list of vices?
That night we had the best sex ever. You said you counted how many times I came. I only knew I cried. And I didn’t know why.
I drag myself to the present, stare longingly at the blue pills.
They are back in the tar black market of medicine.
As with everything else, you just need to know a guy.
I can get you boxes of this if you like, said the chemist.
Just pay me a 100 is all. And, of course, 5 rupees VAT.
I indulge with two packets. No pain for the next five days. This period will be painless. So I don’t have to think. So I can believe I no longer live.
10 blue capsules in each. That child we would never have. That’s what this is I thought. And then I heard you saying,
This is really your problem, you said. That you read between the lines.
This is really your problem, you repeated. Now everyone reading will think you are a junkie and a slut.