Someone was following her. The alleyway was dark and deserted. There was a lone, weak light in the distance which painted the surroundings in a translucent yellow. The stench of urine and gutka was getting stronger. It was inescapable. She held her breath to suppress vomit from rising in her throat. Kunti pushed the pram further and further away from the mansion her father called home, and into the unknown lanes of Gokul. Every few seconds she glanced backwards, to make sure nobody was following her. No matter how many times she’d turned around, she was not satisfied.
Kunti woke up. Her eyes were wide open. She stared at the long, crystal chandelier in the middle of the room. At least the child in the pram was not crying tonight. Kunti didn’t bother looking for her husband, Pandu. The absence of his deep inhalations and exhalations, the complete silence in the room meant: he was either in his office on the third floor or he had retired for the night to his second bedroom, on the other side of the House.
At five o’clock in the morning, Kunti began her morning routine. She draped a pastel green pure chiffon sari, slipped on her brown, handmade kolhapuri sandals, tied her long black hair neatly in a bun, poured herself a glass of coconut juice from the jug at her bedside table and took the stairs to the ground floor. She switched on the light in the corridor to a daylight colour. On her way, she left the half empty glass on one of the many intricately carved wooden high tables. She stepped out of the House through the back door. This was the only time of the day that Mrs. Kunti Pandu, wife of CEO of Vichitravirya & Co Ltd, would leave her room without applying any make-up; no foundation, no rouge, no eyeliner and no kajal; only the red sindoor at the point where her hair parted. The only time in the day that she gave herself the freedom to be aam, normal like other people.
Kunti walked down Altamount Road, slowed down her speed, as she took the winding downward slope. The morning breeze left a tingly sensation at the base of her neck. The crows and pigeons had already begun their day. They flew from one tree to the other, cawed and cooed for the world to wake up. The dark blue sky was turning a shade lighter with every step Kunti took towards the base of Peddar Road. She went up the slope, took the right on Babulnath Chowk and then finally she turned left. This brought her to Chowpatty. The stretch of sandy land along the coast extended for miles and miles till the tip of Bombay island. Kunti stood there, she watched the ebb and flow of the waves and she willed the nightmare from last night to go away.
The recurring dream reminded her of her father Kuntibhoja’s belief in Karma. He’d told her, “Beta, if you ever do something bad, if you hurt someone in any manner or form, then the same thing will happen to you, sooner or later. It’s the cycle of nature.” Her inability to bear a child after that incident had done nothing but further strengthened her father’s beliefs.
Going to Chowpatty, in the early hours of the morning had been Kunti’s ritual for so long, she didn’t notice the coarse, wet sand entering her sandals as she made her way towards the ocean. This was the spot where the city skyline was visible. The tall skyscrapers, the Brabourne Stadium and the long bridge which connected the east side of Marine Drive to the west. As the sun rose up from behind her, the lights that illuminated the hotels and the street lights that formed the Queen’s necklace went off. Now, it was only Bombay- the city of dreams; either you go with the flow or you drown with it. Kunti had experienced both. After all these years in the city, she was still struggling to keep her head above water.
She turned around and faced the horizon. She could feel the heat from the first rays of the sun at the back of her head. The stalls along the beach had opened up; they sold egg bhurji and bun maska, bournvita milk and filter coffee. Young Chhotu was preparing her masala chai at the stall. Kunti had a running account there. At the end of the month, Chhotu gave her a bill on a scrappy piece of paper, and she gave him an additional fifty percent of the total.
Chhotu handed her a steaming cup of kadak masala chai, “Good morning Didi!,” he greeted her. Kunti blew out cool air into the short cutting glass, and took small sips. The stall owners had started to place the plastic stools and the plastic mattresses outside their shops. There were homeless people sleeping by the pavements. Their children had woken up first. Some were in ragged t-shirts with no chaddi, others only in a chaddi. One of them took a shit only two metres away from where they’d slept. The other kids started playing with the street dogs, they pulled the dogs’ tails and ran, or threw trash and dared the dog to catch it. As the intensity of the sunlight increased, Kunti knew it was time to return back to the House. She couldn’t be seen by anyone. This was her secret morning ritual. She took the same route back. The small cafés had opened up, the Gurkha at Babulnath Temple was unlocking the steel chains of the huge, grey iron gates, the thelawala selling paan and tobacco was setting up the boxes of mint flavoured sweets and chewing gums, as well as the various condiments needed to make paan.
Kunti took the back door to the House. She saw her glass of coconut juice was there, as she’d left it. As she shut the door to her room, she heard the first of the domestic help starting their morning shift. Kunti slipped off her kolhapuris, put them in the walk-in wardrobe in the section where her traditional shoes were kept, changed into her night gown she’d worn an hour back and got under the thick duvet. She decreased the temperature of the ac, and hoped that the sweat on her body cooled down before Dhatri Dasi came to wake her up. Her mind wandered to the time when Pandu had taken her to the famous Bachelorr’s on Marine Drive because she was craving strawberry and cream in the middle of the night.
They had just made love when he told her. Or at least she had made love. For him, it was something else, something necessary, a way of starting a family. Feelings didn’t seem to enter into the act.
“I’m getting married tomorrow,” Pandu said.
“I’m in love. I’m getting married tomorrow.”
“And you’re divorcing me?” Kunti tried to keep her voice as steady as possible.
“No! Are you out of your mind? I’ve married you. I can’t break that promise.”
“We both know we don’t have that thing between us, the spark.”
Kunti looked at him with disbelief, she couldn’t find a drop of compassion in his body language. She asked, “So you’ll have two wives?”
“It’s the only way Kunti.”
Kunti was tempted to ask who the other woman was. She wanted to know how they’d met, when the affair had started, for how long had it been going on for, how she looked, if she had long soft hair, or whether she made him laugh. Oh, for God’s sake, they’d just had sex, how stupid of her to think they were making love. Did he really love that other woman? Or was it a ploy to start a family because he assumed she couldn’t?
Kunti waited for Pandu to emphasise on anything else; what their living arrangements were going to be like, who was going to be in charge of the household duties, why was he really doing it and why was he breaking the news to her in that manner.
But Pandu simply rolled over the bed and disappeared into the bathroom. She tried to get a hold on her emotions. She couldn’t cry or show little bit of weakness before the man she called her husband. Her ego wouldn’t give him the satisfaction, no matter how much she loved him. All she wanted to do was rip off the comforter and forget the last few minutes. She heard the shower running in the bathroom. She waited for Pandu to get ready and leave.
Kunti locked the bedroom door. Everything smelled of Pandu. But it also reminded her that he was marrying another woman. She ripped off the comforter and the pillows. She threw away the clothes she was wearing, her silky La Senza night gown, her matching lacy rose coloured bra and underwear.
Naked, alone, she opened the hidden drawer in her closet, under all her diamond and gold jewellery she found the Marlboro suttas. She took two from the pack, and the lighter. She locked herself in the bathroom, turned on the exhaust and smoked the two suttas. She took one deep drag after the other, every two seconds, and waited for the tobacco to slow down her racing brains, to calm her mind and her heart. She went back for two more. After she’d exhausted her lungs and her body, she turned on the shower at a temperature so high that at any other point in her life she would’ve screamed out loud. Her long black wavy hair, with tresses of brown, drenched in the hot water as she slowly slipped down to the cream marbled floor.
She sat there, under the shower until Dhatri Dasi found her. She was the only person in the House who had access to unlock all the rooms that Kunti could lock. Dhatri Dasi turned off the shower, wrapped Kunti with a fresh thick towel, a smaller one for her hair, and guided her to the bed. She gave Kunti a pill, which she gulped down, asked for another and waited for sleep to take over her consciousness.
When she woke up, the lighting in the room was set to dim. Her eyes focused on Dhatri Dasi who was entering with a tray, a plate with two black forest pastries and a mug of steaming hot coffee. She could smell the goodness instantly. Kunti realised that Dhatri Dasi had somehow managed to dress her into a soft robe while she was sleeping. A fresh sheet with a floral print was spread out on the bed with matching fluffy pillows as opposed to the square ones which she’d ripped off earlier. Kunti sat up on the bed,
“Dasi, come here, sit next to me for a bit.”
With her mug of coffee in hand and a spoonful of her favourite pastry from Taj Palace Hotel in her mouth, Kunti tried to savour the short term happiness she felt.
“What time is it Dasi?”
“It’s half past two, but its Monday.”
“I slept for two days? Oh God, what reason did you give Sahib that I couldn’t attend.. attend..?”
“That you’ve got your periods and so you can’t touch anything,” Dhatri Dasi sighed.
“Oh almighty Vishnu! Thank you. Have some of the pastry, Dasi.”
“Thank you, Kuntidevi. I just had my lunch. Do you want to watch something?”
“I’d really like that.”
They sat back for three hours, watched Kunti’s favourite romantic-comedy Apna Haath Jagannath on the Crown television screen. They laughed at the scenes they’d seen so many times before.
As the end credits rolled off, Dhatri Dasi finally looked at Kunti.
“He’s married someone else Dasi. I’ll still be his wife, but he’s married another woman.”
Eyes watery, Kunti collapsed in Dhatri Dasi’s lap, the closest figure to a mother she’d had ever since she was a child.
“Oh Kunti!” Dhatri Dasi said, patted her head and petite shoulders with her wrinkled hands.
“I thought he loved me. I didn’t think, of everyone on earth, my pati, my husband would take another wife. He didn’t even think of me for one second. I mean nothing to him.” All the pent up tears came out like the gush of water bursting from a pipe. Kunti cried until she dozed off again.