She was Radhika Harish. Radhika ‘oh-so-tired-of-life’ Harish.
Her car was the first one in line at the railway crossing. The guy operating the levers that brought down the rickety crossing gates, puffed on his beedi and ogled at her; for, at forty-one, she was still beautiful. In fact, she looked way better a woman now than the girl she was in her twenties. The years had taken a toll on her looks no doubt, the fine lines on her face, testimony to a life well lived. The soft skin on her face, not so taut anymore, framed a remarkable pair of lips and shining brown eyes. They were the eyes of a mother who had seen a good many years of life, proudly watching a wonderful child that she’d brought into the world grow up into an amazing teenager.
The shrill whistle of the approaching train startled Radhika, bringing her out of her reverie. The man at the gate watched a single tear roll down her left cheek as the train rumbled past. It dawned on him then that the brightness he’d seen earlier in those brown eyes had been her tears, unshed. Radhika looked up and caught him staring at her. She wiped the tell-tale tear off her cheek and revved the engine. There would be time to grieve later. For now, she had a life to start afresh, from scratch.
Radhika had always lived with a queer sort of sadness in her heart. A sadness that had imperceptibly crept in over her eighteen years of marriage to Harish. They had started out very well – A hard working husband, a diligent wife, who worked part-time and a child who was loved beyond bounds. They planned, scrimped and saved over the years for a financially secure future. It was what everybody did. But, their little family of love had imploded from the sheer exhaustion of trying too hard to be perfect. Years later, in their beautiful house amidst nice things and expensive cars, they saw each other with tired eyes and empty hearts.
On a quiet sunday afternoon, while passing a bowl of sambar across the dining table to Harish, it struck Radhika that, apart from the watery sambar, a teenaged son and her surname, she shared nothing more with her husband. Somewhere along the way, her marriage had turned into something that had to be endured and not savoured.
Despite her misgivings, their unhappy marriage would have survived, had it not been for the deadly blow it received a few evenings later. They had just returned after visiting an ailing relative in Kerala, when Vishnu, their darling boy, had ceremonially announced at the dinner table that he was gay. Harish had actually burst out laughing taking it for a joke. The deadpan expression on his son’s face had made him stop and ask, ‘Is the boy serious, Radhika?’
The drama that had unfolded in their ‘perfect home’ that day looked like an episode out of a poorly scripted soap opera. Harish had flung down his spoon, reached over and struck his son right across his face, making the bowl of matar paneer topple all over the boy’s t shirt. He’d then pulled him up by his curly mop of brown hair, the very same curls he’d stroked and kissed hundreds of times before, dragged him across the living room, raining blows all over and shoved him out the front door, yelling, ‘Radhika, you damned woman, just what kind of a perverted monster have you raised? He can’t be my son! He is a bastard who belongs in the streets! Rascal, get out of my house before I kill you! You can come back when you change your mind and choose to be normal, like other guys your age!’
Between her uncontrollable sobs, Radhika had tried getting the right words out. ‘Harish, Don’t! You’re hurting him! Please… He’s our son, after all. Nothing in the world is going to change that! Let’s hear him out first.. Harish, Harish, are you even listening?!’ All to little avail. Her entreaties had been as useless as a dragging a white crayon across a white sheet of paper. The sudden and violent destruction of parental fantasies had made a mad man out of Harish.
That had been the night that she’d dialled the number a friend had given her several months back but had hoped to never use- Mrs. Susheela Krishnan, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.
She was just too tired of being utterly and overwhelmingly sad.
Seventeen year old Vishnu’s reaction at his father’s outburst had veered from disappointment to despair before finally settling on anger. ‘Appa, do you really think that I’m doing this on purpose to shock and shame you? I didn’t have a choice, appa! This is who I am!’ The last part of his speech was drowned out by the sound of the door banging shut on his face.
He’d spent the night at Siddharth’s place contemplating his bleak future. He had been lucky enough to have a friend in Siddharth – Sid. Sid wasn’t gay but had an older brother in Atlanta who was. He understood. It had been Sid’s idea to come clear to his parents- ‘Your mom and dad look like cool people. I think they might be fine with it. If my father, who chants the Gayathri 108 times a day and never skips his ‘sandhyavandhanam’, could come to terms with my brother being gay, I’m pretty sure your parents can. But be prepared for the fireworks!’ He’d cautioned.
Vishnu, a tad unsure, had replied. ‘Not too sure about appa, but I just might have a chance convincing amma.’
‘How wrong could I have been?’ he wondered, trying to squeeze in his bulky frame into the tiny bed in the spare room at Sid’s place. He longed to speak to his mother. Her tear-streaked, helpless face tugged at his heart. He’d let her down so badly.
He remembered an incident from the first day of college when a team of boisterous seniors had bullied him and a few other first years. They had been made to dress up as girls and dance to a Bollywood song. With dupattas and make up borrowed from the girls, the seniors had painted up Vishnu and his friends making them resemble fiendish drag queens out of some horror movie. Satisfied with their handiwork, they had then played some bawdy music and roared with laughter as the teary-eyed first years stomped around clumsily. Vishnu had hesitated for the briefest of minutes before falling in line with the beats of the song. He shimmied and thrust his hips, flayed his hands, batted his eye lids, pouted his painted lips and smiled coquettishly. His wild abandon had made the others fall silent and stare – some with contempt and others with embarrassment. There had been one guy in the crowd who had actually applauded and thumped his back after the song had ended. It had been Siddharth.
Vishnu had known all along that he was ‘different’. He preferred guys over girls and had constantly felt guilty for feeling so. He’d managed to keep his feelings under wraps fearful of the repercussions of such a revelation. But that incident at the college emboldened him. Could he be different and yet have people like him? It did appear so. Barring a few, who sneered and made snide remarks behind his back, most of the guys didn’t mind being friends with him. He was one of the most popular guys in college by the end of the first year. It was evident to him that there was a place for everyone in the world. Life would indeed be dull if everyone were to be as alike as matchsticks in a box. A candy stick in the midst of a pile of matchsticks wouldn’t be all that bad, would it? He didn’t mind being the pariah – a bright pink candy stick in a boxful of match sticks.
Vishnu woke up the next morning, sore and stiff. He saw the sun dissolving the dark, filling up the tiny room with its yellow glow and wished desperately to go back to sleep again. There were days when waking up felt worse than being in a nightmare. This was one of them. His world had come crashing down upon him overnight. All of a sudden, he felt young and scared and longed for his mother.
As if on cue, there was a knock at the door. Sid spoke in a hurried whisper ‘Dude, wake up. Your mom is here.’
Vishnu leapt out of bed and hastened to wash up. His mother hated it when he came out in the mornings with the smell of sleep about him. He found her on the couch, nervously tapping one foot and trying to make small talk with Sid’s mother. His mother had always been terrible at niceties. When she looked up at him and smiled, Vishnu felt a strange sense of relief course through him. He gathered her into a tight hug, her body almost crushed by the bulk of his humongous frame. For gay as he was, Vishnu was a district level swimming champion and a regular at the fitness zone gym. The hug was brief as the awkward seventeen-year old in him re-surfaced prompting him to pull away from her.
‘Amma, I’m sorry.’ Was all he could manage to say as his sobbing mother hugged him again.
This time, he didn’t pull away and clung to her like a frightened kitten.
They were seated at the little Udupi restaurant near Cox Town. Radhika watched her ravenous son wolf down his masala dosa and lick his fingers daintily, all lady-like. She couldn’t help smiling.
‘Mmmm… this is amazing. How did you know about this place, amma? And why are we even here? Can we go home after this?’
She had waited until he polished off his plate and then began. ‘Vishnu, we aren’t going back home. Maya aunty has found us a nice apartment nearby. We’ll live there until…’
‘Until what?’ The slight tremor in his voice was evident.
‘The divorce’. It felt so unnatural saying the word out aloud. And yet she felt a queer sense of calmness after her honest acknowledgement of the failure that her marriage was.
His eyes filled up with angry tears. ‘You’re divorcing appa on account of me? I destroyed our family!’ he sobbed into his large hands.
‘No, you didn’t. This would have happened eventually. You were just a catalyst that speeded up the process. Vishnu, I can’t be with a man who has no qualms disowning his only son just for being what he is.’
He was interrupted by the arrival of the coffee Radhika had ordered. The shiny steel tumbler made a clanking noise as the waiter placed it on the table before her. Radhika took in a tiny sip of the scalding liquid and frowned. She called out to the waiter. ‘This isn’t filter coffee. This is tea.’
The waiter sighed, giving her an exasperated look. Radhika could almost hear him mouth the words. ‘Woman, just drink the damn thing and leave.’
‘Madam, tea not O.K?’ he began haltingly.
‘I had asked for a cup of filter coffee. This, here is tea.’
The waiter sighed. ‘Madam, maybe they were out of coffee powder in the kitchen. So…’
‘So, what? You could have just told me, you didn’t have coffee. Why bring me something that I didn’t ask for?’
Her voice had acquired a shrill tone by now. Vishnu sighed at began scrolling down his phone. This wasn’t new to him. He let the drama play out. After a few minutes of back and forth, he heard an exasperated Radhika ask for the manager.
‘We don’t have a manager, madam. I can call the owner if you want.’
‘Amma, don’t you think, this is a bit too m-’ Vishnu began, but Radhika shushed him.
The man who walked over was pleasant to look at. His clothes, although a bit grimy, fitted him well. His expression was serious, but not unkind. Around his eyes were laughter lines in just the right amount. He looked like the kind of guy who worked hard, brought home the money and loved his family. His introduction was formal. ‘I’m Mohandas, the owner of this place. Any problem, madam?’
To her own surprise and discomfort, Radhika took a good ten seconds to respond. She knew better than to stare at him this way, but couldn’t help herself. She tore her eyes away from his cool, unaverted gaze and gestured towards the cup of coffee to complain. All of a sudden, she wasn’t angry anymore. She just felt plain stupid.
The waiter whispered something to Mohandas. She saw him nodding sombrely and frown at something he said. When he spoke his voice was smooth. She could make out that he was apologising for something, but his words were the least of her focus. An awkward pause followed as he waited for her to respond. When she struggled to come up with something to say, she saw a knowing smile spread on his features.
Muttering something incoherently, she grabbed her purse and stormed off, gesturing for a confused Vishnu to follow.
“Amma, what was that about? Why didn’t you say something to that man, when he apologised? He was actually nice.’
He had been too nice. That was her problem. She chided herself for being a simpering fool and reminding herself of her unusual circumstances. She was in a strange new apartment, unpacking suitcases and trying her best to figure out the future as a single mother to her teenaged son. Her modest income from her secretarial job that had, for so many years, been just disposable income, had become her sole income overnight. She had been unprepared for a day like this. She remembered the passive, untroubled look on her husband’s face at their parting. He’d just stood there watching her leave, a blank expression on his face. After all those years together, she’d expected more. He’d been more upset at losing a sock, than this. Hot tears streamed down her cheeks and she sank down wearily on the makeshift bed she’d made with her sarees. Vishnu was asleep in the other room on a similar bed. After the tears ran dry, she walked around the new apartment and let the immensity of her decision sink in. It sobered her up. She then came up with a list of furniture that the apartment needed. She’d talk to her boss about her salary raise tomorrow. It was time to move on.
All day long Radhika had sat at her desk, paperwork piling higher and higher, drinking cup after cup of tepid instant coffee served without a smile. Her discussion with the boss for a salary hike hadn’t gone down well. And as she stepped out of office, the skies had opened up, the rains drenching her to the bone. She wanted to scream out loud. She wove her car around the peak hour traffic, shivering and cursing her luck, craving for a piping hot cup of filter coffee. She could think of just one place where she could get one.
Mohandas had been surprised when a disgruntled Muthu walked into his cramped office at the rear of the hotel to inform him that ‘the fighting customer’ was back. He hadn’t had any trouble recalling her. She’d been on his mind long after she’d left. He strode up to the kitchen and personally supervised the brewing of her coffee. He then surprised his staff by offering to take the coffee to her.
From the smile she gave him, it was evident that she was here to see him.
Mohandas placed the piping hot brew before her and watched her as she took a sip. ‘Is the coffee good? Any complaints today?’
‘I do have a lot to complain about this nasty weather and my horrible day at work.’
‘And I do have all the time in the world to listen.’ He sat in the chair across her and called out for a cup of coffee for himself.
She talked and he listened. She spoke of the sheltered life she’d had. Nothing unpleasant, yet not unlike a bird in a gilded cage. She lamented the disintegration of her marriage. And about her son being gay. She fretted over his future in a country like India. She wondered if she had been a bad mother. She vented out her anger at her husband for throwing her son out on the streets without a second’s thought. She worried about being insecure financially.
As she opened up to the man who sat across her, several years younger, it dawned upon her that this was all she needed – a patient ear and a non-judgemental heart. She wasn’t looking for a person to share her burden with, she was confident of carrying it all by herself. All she wanted was someone to keep her going on the days her burden seemed to be too heavy to bear.
He had then told her about himself. A lovely wife snatched away too early by destiny. A lonely life filled with painful memories that wouldn’t leave or let him live. A heart that was afraid to seek happiness again.
The conversation was a respite that they’d both needed badly. It left Mohandas invigorated and Radhika optimistic.
It had been two weeks since Radhika and Vishnu had moved into the apartment. It now had some semblance to a home.
‘Mohan, no, move that sofa a bit more towards the right. Yeah, like that. Vishnu, is that okay?’
Radhika’s boss had finally given in to her request for a salary hike when she’d threatened to quit, easing a bit of pressure on her. Mohandas had helped her pick out some cheap furniture from Shivaji nagar. Over the days, he had eased into their lives as if he’d been all along standing at the by-lanes waiting for them to notice him and take him into their fold. Their little world was beautiful in its imperfection. He hadn’t realised how lonely he’d been in life until she’d come along. She was wonderful in a way he couldn’t describe – sensual yet motherly, playful yet mature, worldly yet down to earth. Her warmth, experience and openness drew him to her. Every minute with her was unexpected and exciting. His days no more had the ring of dull monotony to it. Life was different, exciting and he felt brand new.
He grew to be very fond of Vishnu. They often went jogging together in the mornings. It was after one such jogging session that Mohan had broached the topic to Radhika.
‘I was wondering if we could enrol Vishnu for a Kathakali course at Shantimandala.’
She had completely freaked out. ‘Kathakali? Why in the world should we do that? Why not start with something normal that other guys his age would do? Like Karate classes, guitar lessons or something?’
Mohandas smiled. He loved it when Radhika got all worked up. Face flush with anger, eyes flashing and nostrils flared – she resembled an angry goddess.
‘Let me explain-’
She cut him off. ‘Are there even schools in Bangalore that teach Kathakali? I thought it was a dying art form.’
‘It isn’t a proper school per se. Kalamandalam Gopalakrishnan Nair is a celebrated Kathakali artiste. He’s in his 70s now, retired and doing his bit to preserve the art form. He takes in a handful of students every year and trains them. I know him quite well. Getting Vishnu in won’t be a problem.’
Radhika looked unconvinced. ‘But why Kathakali, Mohan? What makes you think Vishnu is going to like it? Did he say so?’
‘Why not Kathakali? Isn’t that an art form where Vishnu could find creative outlet to his pent up angst and feelings? Can he not express the femininity in him by playing Subhadra in ‘Subhadraharanam’ or Sathy in ‘Dakshayagam’? He could be Damayanti, Draupadi, Sita, Mohini or even the dreadful pootana. Just think about it.’
‘What utter nonsense!’ Radhika had scoffed.
‘I don’t understand your logic, Radhika. On one hand you worship the dancing lord Nataraja and Mahavishnu who donned the drag to emerge as Mohini. And yet, scoff at male dancers donning female roles.
‘Thats different, Mohan!’
‘Is it, really? Don’t you see? Vishnu’s supposed ‘flaw’ could actually be a blessing here. He’d be able to bring out the nuances of the female character he plays with a kind of sensitivity that other male artists wouldn’t be able to. I’m not forcing you, Radhika. Just think about it and have a talk with Vishnu. I have a good feeling about this.’
Sevaral months later, Radhika and Mohandas sat on the sofa in the green room and watched transfixed as a broad-shouldered, hairy-chested Vishnu was transformed after three hours of make-up into the enticing Damayanti of ‘NalaDamayanti’, for his first stage performance at the Malayali Association . He was fantastic on stage, metamorphosing both physically and mentally into the role of Damayanti, perfectly in tune with the sopanam. His expressions, sometimes elaborate and sometimes subtle were a treat to watch. Somewhere in the middle of the performance, Radhika’s hand slipped into Mohan’s and held it tight. A slight intake of breath and a warm pressure on her hand was his response. They stayed that way until the end of the performance. As the auditorium erupted with applause, the tears that filled her eyes were those of pride and not shame. She gripped Mohan’s hand harder and whispered, ‘Thank you.’ He smiled, gently lifting her hand and pressed it against his heart.
A smiling Vishnu emerged out of the green room traces of green and yellow paint still apparent on his features, looking thrilled and speaking animatedly into the phone.
He held the phone out to his surprised mother. ‘It’s appa! He wants to talk to you.’ When she shook her head resolutely, he thrust the phone into her hands and hissed. ‘Come on, you have to talk. Don’t play hard-to-get now. I think he wants to patch up.’ He then turned to Mohandas with a wide grin. ‘So, how was it, uncle?’
Radhika’s heart was in her mouth. She had trouble even getting out a ‘Hello’. When she did speak, her voice sounded alien to herself. She mostly listened to what her husband had to say for a long time. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Mohandas pull Vishnu into a hug, thump him hard on his back and walk out through the door marked EXIT.
He was in the kitchen sorting out a heated argument between one of his cooks and the cleaning lady when the waiter Muthu sauntered in and announced that she was back.
‘She, who?’ Mohan asked, despite knowing all too well who his visitor was.
‘Radhika madam.’ He said. ‘And she wants her usual cup of filter coffee.’
As the cook began pouring out the milk for the coffee, Mohan stopped him ‘Wait. I’ll make it myself.’
Ten minutes later he was walking towards her, coffee in hand. The smile that lit up her face warmed his heart. In those eyes, he knew lay his happiness.
‘I thought you had moved back in with your husband.’
‘It is this kind of immature thinking that sometimes makes me regret falling in love with a man eight years younger to me.’
‘Come on Radhika, you fall in love with a person and not with their age.’
‘ Hmmm..Very profound. But tell me this. What exactly is it about me that you like so much? Is it my experience?’
He shook his head, smiling.
‘My independence? My motherliness?’
He shook his head again.
‘Is it my- ’
‘Wrinkles.’ He completed her sentence.
‘What?’She hadn’t expected that.
‘I love the wrinkles on your face, Radhika. There, the fine lines on your forehead and under your eyes. Do you know that they make you look beautiful?’
It was the first time that he’d said anything like that. ‘You do have a way with words.’ She said, beaming.
And they sat in quiet calmness sipping coffee and chatting like long-lost friends oblivious to the cacophony of the universe around them, the only music that flowed through them being that of love.
*** The End ***