She knows them now with a fierce intimacy denied even to her
sisters: knows not only their names, which fall on her ear with exotic cadences
(Aishwarya, Priyanka, Heidi, Gisele,), but their supple, nubile
bodies; she knows their every curve and contour, the perfect indentations of
their navels, the swell of their huge and honeyed breasts, the planes of their
narrow and muscular thighs. Beautiful,
she thinks analytically. She knows she
is supposed to think them beautiful, though in many ways they repel and dismay
her. They are hyper-feminine yettroublingly
masculine, and she cannot quite fathom their curiously androgynous eroticism. She gazes at them for long stretches, trying
to winkle out the secrets of their powerful allure.
The magazines are arranged in a vivid, glossy pile on the
sleek kidney-shaped glass table at the center of their newly redecorated living
room. Vijay brings them each time he
returns from one of his trips abroad.
Sometimes they are in foreign languages, French or Spanish, and these
are even more sensual than the American ones, which she likes best. They have encouraging titles — Shape, Glamour — and they seem to speak directly to her: “Butt-tastic: Get
a sexy butt now!” “Beat that belly bloat!” they exhort her, and she yearns to
rise to the challenge.
In her village she had been considered pretty, and she
knows now how pathetic that appraisal had been.
She realizes, too, that her own vanity was foolish, predicated as it was
on the conceits of a fair complexion and a yard of thick black hair. The magazines have revealed to her that
tanned skin — the color of a perfectly toasted cashew nut — and artfully cut
and tousled hair are the true marks of cosmopolitan beauty. She burns as she thinks of her own cloddish
delusions. Burns, too, as she thinks of
the way Vijay looks at her, his cold expression, his indifferent gazeflicking
across her body and then away. If she
were one of them, she thinks, he would be aroused, excited; but she is,
emphatically, not. The pale folds of her
stomach spill over the waist of her sari, her arms jiggle slightly when she
moves, her lips are thin and curving.
When she tries to emulate a bee-stung pout in the mirror, she looks so
ridiculous that it makes her laugh and then, unexpectedly, sob.
“Maybe I will join a gym,” she says tentatively when her
friend Arya drops in for tea. “I saw a
banner somewhere, what do they call it, Jazzercise ... I could try that.”
“Goodness,Sita,” Arya says with desultory surprise, “why
would you do such a thing?”
She flushes and answers defensively, “For exercise. It is good for you.”
“Oh, I suppose so,” Arya agrees. “But it’s a lot of work, too. I don’t really see the point. My grandmother lived to be ninety-three and
she never exercised at all.” Arya
reaches for a samosa and bites into
the potato-filled pastry. Oil glistens
on her lips and she licks a stray crumb off the corner of her mouth, delicately,
like a cat.
“Times have changed,” Sita says weakly. Privately, she is terrified of the glossy new
recreation centers that have sprung up in Bangalore, with their mirrored
windows and gleaming architectural lines.
She does not know if she would ever have the courage to set foot in
one. She has only glimpsed them in
passing, but she knows the sorts of people who go to such places — people who
already know how to mimic the magazine models, people with chic coifs and
polished accents. She would be a pariah
there. They might even chase her out for
spoiling the look of the place. She can
imagine the doorman sending her to the servants’ entrance or shooing her off,
mistaking her for a cleaning lady or a beggar.
“Or, I think there are DVDs,” she continues. “Or — I could learn to swim.”
“You? Swim?” Arya
chuckles and pats her arm. “And what
would you wear to go swimming, Sita, dear?
A Spandex sari?” Seeing Sita’s
dismayed face, she softens. “Why not
start with something simple, like a walk in the park? Walking is good exercise.”
Yes, Sita thinks, she could manage that. Perhaps in the evenings, when it isn’t so hot
outside. She’ll get the driver to take
her to Cubbon Park and walk about watching the picnicking families and the old
geezers out for their constitutionals.
That could be fun, if she could find a way to slip away. Would it give her the muscular abdomen and hollow
cheekbones of the models? She wavers,
then thinks resolutely: It would be a step in the right direction, anyway.
The magazines are full of ideas. They promote step-by-step workouts that to Sita
look like the contortions of the fakirs she used to watch at village
fairs. She turns the magazines this way
and that, to try to figure out how to follow the instructions. On her first attempt to execute a back lunge
with bicep curl, she’dtumbled over, knocking down an end-table and sending a
vase full of flowers crashing to the floor.
The maid had rushed in, exclaiming.
Sita was glad she hadn’t witnessed the ignominy of her exercise
attempt. Walking, she thinks. Walking, I can handle.
“So clumsy,” her mother-in-law had said, watching the
maid gather the shards of broken vase and squat to mop up the spilled
water. “Breaking everything in the
house. That was one of Vijay’s
favorites. From Prague.”
“It was an accident,” Sita had answered humbly, wilting
under her mother-in-law’s basilisk stare.
But she knows Mamee is right: she is graceless, clumsy, unsophisticated,
unlike Heidi and Gisele and Adriana. If
she could become more like them, her world would be a happier place.
Mamee has come to live with her in Bangalore ostensibly
to help out because Vijay is abroad on business so often. “It’s a good thing I am here to manage this
household,” she declares often. “I don’t
know what you’re doing half the time, Sita, wandering about with your head in
the clouds.” She has brought servants
with her: a cook and a maid, who work to her exacting specifications. She has taken over the management of laundry
and cleaning; she’s moved furniture and rearranged the art on the walls: she
favors large paintings of rural landscapes, featuring stiff-legged deer and
gaudy sunsets. Sita doesn’t really care,
though: the apartment doesn’tfeel like her home, which may be why she bumps
into furniture and stumbles into doors.
Things aren’t where she expects them to be.
Or perhaps she isn’t where she is supposed to be. Deep down, she knows this to be closer to the truth. She is grossly out of place in this sleek,
shining, contemporary penthouse, with its plate-glass windows and panoramic
view of the mushrooming cityscape.
People, she thinks fiercely, were not meant to live up in the sky. People were meant to be on the ground, in
small thatched huts, where the smells and sounds of the earth waft into their
ears and nostrils, and the ground is firm beneath their feet. She recalls with a stab of longing the
feeling of grass between her bare toes.
She summons the driver in the late afternoon, while her
mother-in-law is napping, and tells him she wants to be taken to Cubbon Park
that evening. She knows it will be
difficult to slip away, but she yearns, too, to be out of her hermetically sealed
existence, to feel the hot breeze on her face and breathe in the scents of the
evening, frangipani and smoke, spices from the street vendors’ pans. And then there is the promise of walking: of
working off the flab and softness of her body, of becoming thin and gorgeous,
so that Vijay, on his return, will look at her with astonishment and then
desire. Walking promises all of these
things: anticipation flickers within her, razor-edged.
She slips away while her mother-in-law is busy with the
cook and the maid. She can hear Mamee
shrilly berating them for various oversights during the day, running through a
long list of instructions for the evening and the next day; she’sfully occupied
and doesn’t notice when Sita slides out of the door, closing it softly behind
her. In the park, she is giddy with the
rush of freedom that seizes her as she slides out of the car. At first, her steps are light and hurried,
but she finds herself quickly winded. As
she slows, she becomes acutely aware of the tumult around her. Whooping childrenchase each other, geriatrics
amble about, park attendants desultorily sweep up trash. Everything seems vivid, sharply defined, as
brilliant as a film or a painting, chimerical, or maybe hallucinatory. It seems worlds away from her life in the
apartment; worlds away, too, from the directives of the magazines, the spas and
salons and shopping centers with their promises of eternal beauty and love.
On a bench, a man sits calmly, gazing straight
ahead. His skin is blue-black and Sita
cannot see his eyes; he’s wearing sunglasses so dark they are like a mask
across his face. She can feel his gaze
upon her as she drifts past him and she sucks in her stomach and lifts her chin,
looking haughtily away, then casting a sidelong glance toward him. She is chagrined when she notices a white
cane on the bench beside him. His lips
curl into a smile, and she flushes, uncertain of what to make of this exchange:
he has not seen her, yet it seems he has some sense of her presence and also of
her foolishness. Her cheeks burn.
She returns to the car too soon, knowing she must do
better than this: she must not become distracted by the whirl of life around
her; she must focus on walking vigorously and taking long purposeful strides. Her goal, she realizes, is not freedom: it is
So when she returns to find dinner on the table and Mamee
scowling at her absence, she tries to be guarded in what she eats. Diet, too, the magazines say, is crucial to
losing weight and gaining that toned, titillating figure. Mamee watches disapprovingly as she picks at
her rice and vegetables. Afterward, Sita
hears her scolding the cook.
“See, young madam is not eating. There is too much salt in the food. How can she bear me grandsons if she will not
And later, she says sharply to Sita, “It’s time you and
Vijay started a family. You’ve been
married a year. Grandsons will bring
blessings on us all.”
Sita blushes and looks down, unsure of how to respond to
this directive. Your son doesn’t think I’m sexy, she wants to say. He
hasn’t touched me for months. I’m
working on it. But she cannot bring
herself to speak.
“You are too thin,” Mamee continues. “You need a strong body to bear
children. Good wide childbearing
hips. You must eat more. I will ask the cook to make food that’s good
for fertility: yams, groundsel.”
But that’s not going
to work, Sita thinks in despair.
I’ve got to get thinner, not
bigger. The models have hips like little
When she looks up she can see the maid studying her
impassively. Their exchange has been in
English, and she knows the maid cannot have understood, but she can feel the
color mount to her face. Everyone is
watching, it seems: Mamee, the maid, the blind man in the park, the hollow-eyed
vixens on the magazine covers, and Sita has nowhere to hide. With an incoherent exclamation she turns
away, stumbling blindly out to the balcony where the hot breeze only intensifies
her misery and confusion. She grips the
railing and draws deep breaths, wishing she could sprout wings like one of the
grimy city pigeons and fly back home, though she is not sure where home is any
more: the village of her girlhood may not embrace the woman she has become,
worldly, wealthy, insecure, someone she does not recognize and can no longer
Slipping out to Cubbon Park that evening seems even more
transgressive and liberating than before.
She starts off marching purposefully along the path, head up, stomach
in, remembering the instructions for “power walking” in the recent Marie Claire, but when she realizes
people are looking at her, the kids pointing and snickering, she abandons the
effort. It is nicer, anyway, to stroll,
to listen to the birdsong and traffic noises, to let her mind wander.
At the curve in the path, the blind man is on his bench
once again, and she slows down, glancing hesitantly at him. Again, as she nears, he smiles. “Good evening,” she says.
He leans forward, his face tilted intently toward
her. “I would like to fuck you,” he
says. Sita is stilled. They face each
other. After a long moment, she flees,
her high-heeled sandals clicking and catching on the uneven pavement. She scrambles into the car, gasping and
sweaty. On the drive home she begins to
weep. She can feel the driver watching her impassively in the rear-view mirror.
Dinner that evening is a feast. The cook has produced an
array of delicacies, some of which Sita has never seen before, and her walk has
aroused her appetite; she eats voraciously under Mamee’s beady-eyed scrutiny.
“You must eat,” Mamee says. “You will not bear me grandchildren
otherwise.” After the meal, as the maid
is clearing the table, Mamee faces Sita.
“I hear from the driver that you are taking walks in the
park,” she says. “I have asked him to stop
that. What would Vijay say to your
running about the city alone like a schoolgirl?
You’re not in the village any more, Sita. You are a married woman, with
responsibilities to the family.”
Sita cannot look at her.
She feels her heart beating faster in her chest. She sits there for a long time, long after
Mamee has gone to read her prayer-book in her room. When she rises she catches a glimpse of the
maid at the kitchen table, a plate with a single roti and a cup of dhal in
front of her, one cheek propped on a thin wrist. The maid’s blouse has an open back and Sita
can see the bones of her spine. She goes
to the bathroom and rams a toothbrush down her throat, throwing up the rich,
succulent meal she has just eaten. She vomits
with the same gusto as she ate. The
spicy taste lingers in her mouth afterward.
When she looks down, she can see the chubby orbs of her small soft
breasts and the swell of her pale belly, rippled with cellulite, and with one
hand she presses it in, watching with fascination as her fingers sink into the
soft flesh, as into plasticine.
She sleeps fitfully that night, at once hungry and
nauseous. Her cell phone jangles at some
ungodly hour: it is Vijay, calling from Tokyo, where he is in a taxi on the way
to a meeting. “I’ll be home in a few
days,” he says cheerfully. “Hope you and
mother are doing well. What would you
like from Japan?”
Sita is at a loss.
“I don’t know,” she says. Visions
of geishas and harajuku girls pop into her head. “A fan?” she says, imagining herself gazing
flirtatiously at him over its pretty array.
Vijay laughs; she can hear his disappointment. “That’s just like you, Sita,” he
replies. “You can get fans in
India. You need to use your imagination
a bit more. Japan is an erotic paradise,
you know.” She does not know how to respond to that, so she hangs up, the phone
clicking quietly into silence.
The light at the window is bluish-gray; the sun has not
quite risen. Sita pushes back the
coverlet and contemplates herself in the huge mirror that runs across the
sliding closet doors. She is disheveled
in her gathered, embroidered nightgown, a wedding gift from her mother-in-law;
it is rucked up around her thighs. She
can see folds of skin at her neck and wrists, and her cheeks are round and
plump, as if she was holding nuts in them like a chipmunk. There was a boy in her village who would have
given his left arm to see her like this, half-dressed, sprawling on the bed
like an odalisque; she can hear the rasping voice of the blind man in the park.
And she can imagine how Vijay would look at her, his upper lip curling faintly,
his eyes glinting with some emotion she has never been able to fathom, though
she knows it is not ardor. He will be
back in three days, and she is still Sita, whom only a blind stranger would
desire, not Heidi or Gisele or Adriana.
She emerges from her room and moves through the house,
wanting to breathe in the cool morning air, wanting to clear her head. She can hear a faint, rhythmic sound: the maid
is ahead of her, working at the granite grinding stone her mother-in-law has
installed on the balcony. Only the
traditional methods are suitable for certain aspects of Indian cuisine, Mamee
has said. Blenders are all very well for
fruit drinks or soups, but the spice blends, the masalas and chutneys of real Indian fare, must be hand-milled. “Vijay only likes it the traditional way,”
Mamee has declared. “He is a modern boy,
but he has some old-fashioned tastes when it comes to important matters.” And she smiled smugly, as if she herself were
one of his important old-fashioned preferences.
Sita pauses at the balcony door. The maid is bent over her task, rotating the
big stone pestle in the giant mortar; the spices smell sharp and acrid. She has been at it for a while: beads of
sweat glisten on her copper-colored neck.
She is wearing the same tiny, open-backed blouse as yesterday, and her
sari has slipped to her waist, and Sita can see that her waist is so small she
could encircle it with both hands. The
maid’s arms are roped with muscles. As
she grinds, Sita watches them flex and shift, gleaming in the dim light. There are muscles in her back, too, that
ripple as she works. She turns her head
slightly, and sun flashes off her earring and the high plane of her cheekbone.
Sita thinks of Vijay, thinks of Vijay standing here and
watching this girl, her slender toned body, her taut abdomen and firm strong
haunches. She thinks of his gaze moving
from Sita to the maid, seeing the curls slip from the girl’s knot of hair to
frame her angular face, watching a pulse throb in the hollow of her throat,
between her delicate collarbones. She
imagines his eyes moving to her lovely brown breasts, pressed against the thin
fabric of that skimpy blouse, down to the concave stomach, and then to the long
legs visible through the worn cotton sari.
The thought is so painful she gasps, and the maid turns,
startled. Their eyes meet. Something in Sita’s face jolts the girl, who
stands and throws up her hands, backing away.
She whimpers as the balcony rail stabs into her back. Sita advances.
She can think of nothing now but the way the girl’s thin
shoulders will feel when she grasps them, how light the girl’s body will be,
how sensual it will be tocrush her frailty against her own bulk just for a second,
for one split second. She reaches out as
though to embrace the girl, who cries out, pinned against the balcony railing;
for a moment they are locked in a lovers’ clinch. And Sita realizes the pain, the pain that has
haunted her, the terror that grips her at the thought of Vijay’s return, will
soon be over; the thought makes her smile and then laugh aloud in delight. She leans forward, and the girl clutches at
her. Her bare feet leave the
ground. And then they are in flight,
their bodies weightless, their limbs tangled and then free as they drift apart,
falling lightly, spinningthrough the flushed, now brilliant, sun-streakeddawn, through
the glittering spires of the city, to the compassionate and clement earth.