A little disclaimer: This particular piece is not a critique of the ideology of marriage itself, but the warped manner in which it is used to keep young women in check. To prevent them from breaking through the heavily-manned barriers created for them by society.
When he smiles His mouth curves up a little Just a bit. The teeth don’t show. But sometimes a rare glimpse of ivory snow Peeks through. Like weathered pages From a book that has seen the ages; That has been loved, and also has Been tossed around in the hands Of those that loved it less - Now hiding its parchment yellowness.
When she smiles Her cheeks skip up, joining hands With the crow’s feet at the corners Of her eyes. Hands and feet Join together in a wreathe Its flowers have been abloom a while Many now wear waning smiles Just a few are waxing still Of bountiful life taking their fill.
When they look at each other He and she And they smile for all the world to see The mouths, the noses and the cheeks The enamel pearls, the crow’s feet All fade away as eyes light up; Two sets of windows brighten up Spangled pathways to twin souls. The radiant smiles reach deep inside To gently touch two pages bright Of a love story yet untold.
Sheila had gone back to Dhaka after a month in Colombo. Despite not being a happy work traveller, she was grateful for her recent trips which had been taking her to the sun-kissed shores of Sri Lanka and into the warm embrace of the man she was falling in love with. Sheila was a realist and had taken her time with letting Cupid carry out his soppy shenanigans with her heart. But she had finally given in and was now quite surely slipping and sliding into the full throes of love.
It was a week after her return that she saw it – the picture of Sam with a girl. It was on his FB profile. She felt her heart sink and then shrivel. Not in the desperate, wanting to die manner; but in the heartbroken, disappointed but determined not to drown way. She sent him one message asking if he was seeing someone else. He replied in the affirmative. The exchange was polite and estranged, like they had never actually met. She then blocked his number, wrapped up her bruised heart, threw herself into her work and prayed that her usual gumption would in time, minister and heal.
After Sheila left, Sam changed gears and put Angeline at the front and centre of his focus. The newness and the excitement of the engagement was now a month old distant memory but he still needed to act the part. He was looking to the future – a future that would be brightened and bolstered by a British passport. And for that, he would be the devoted, adoring fiancé. The couple coordinated on updating their profile pictures on social media, and the online universe too was informed of yet another fairytale prefect union in an otherwise imperfect world.
Two months later, Sam flew into a new sunrise, replete with new opportunities, his wedding and also a whole new demographic of women. That last bit he had not really planned for, but old habits die hard and man is nothing if not fallible. That combined with the universe’s love of satire, Sam soon found himself between his spanking new marriage and …the arms of another woman, and then another and another. He’d met the first one at his wedding in fact. She was a pretty little thing with eyes like cornflower blue sapphires – a confection of island vibes with a continental flavour. He hadn’t meant to play around but it had happened, again and again after that. It was like he hadn’t quite come to terms with the exclusivity that marriage enjoins on a couple. Angeline was heartbroken; but the scales tilted quite completely towards the pure wrath she felt. She had given this man her heart and her soul – diva style, in all its glorious trappings, and he had squandered it by chasing other women … cheap, wanton women. She hated the women as much as she resented the fact that despite everything, she wasn’t enough for Sam.
After his second error in judgement, Sam was packed off back to the island that had, at various times in his life, held him both broken and whole in her arms. This time he stepped onto her soil feeling somewhat vanquished and victimised. It was true that he’d cheated on his wife but to be thrown out of the country was taking things too far. He was now without a job, without prospects and living with his parents.
After a month of wallowing in self pity, Sam roused himself and sauntered back into the familiar folds of friends and family. His post- Kent story was as varied as his audiences tended to be. The family heard of it as a marital spat which may resolve itself in time; his friends heard of the psychotic harridan that he had married and the newcomers into his life knew only that he was footloose and fancy free.
A year passed and then two. Somewhere down the road, there was a troublesome patch-up between Angeline and Sam that then oscillated between periods of superlative love and violent hate. When the former elation hit, he would whisk himself off to the UK for a few months of honeymoon-happy times; and when the mood pendulum swung southwards, it would bring everything that was good, whole and happy about their union crashing down around them, culminating also for Sam, in a one way ticket back to Tear Drop* isle.
Sam had, at various times, during his UK banishment periods, bumped into Sheila. Her work now brought her regularly to the island for months at a time. And every time he’d seen her, he had felt the familiar old stirring in his heart and in his groin. The urge to possess would come striding in making him feel agitated and he had to admit it, even somewhat desperate. And so he had gone up to her, again and again, expecting her to thaw in the sizzle of his masculinity. He expected her to melt when he spoke of the vicious rumours concerning a marriage he’d never contracted. But she had always looked at him as if she’d laid eyes on a steaming pile of refuse. His cruel mouth that most times so convincingly dressed itself in a heart-melting smile, curled into a grimace to reflect the person within whenever he felt agitated or ungratified. She was now able to see him for what he was.
He however, was taken aback; this was not the customary reception he got even from the ones whose hearts he had mauled in the wake of his lusty rampages. At the start of his attempts at rekindling an association, she had refused to acknowledge him at all. Three years down the road, she had begun to respond with a terse hello. The tempered approach was more to do with the fact that Colombo was a small place making even the most unpleasant of encounters a statistical probability, and also because she had realized that nursing grudges even of the most noble variety, tended to eat at the person that is wronged more than they ever affect the perpetrators themselves.
Four years into his bruised and battered marriage, Sam chanced upon Sheila once more as he had done on so many different occasions. This time however, she actually had a conversation with him. A real conversation after years of strained reticence. He told her then that he had in fact been married but had for the past two years, been divorced. That his ex wife was psychotic and the union had not been able to survive the emotional battering ram that she had wielded on it so regularly and so enthusiastically. Sheila had listened; she hadn’t said anything. She tended to be reserved when it came to ugly gossip and to the torrid tales told by people who themselves had also shown up to be less than perfect specimens of the humankind that they were so distressed by. Then began a cautious friendship. Sheila and Sam went for drinks together and then dinner. But she still kept him at arms length. She was now aware enough to realize that he made for a good fair weather friend, someone to spend a social evening out with; but that anything beyond that was doomed to failure. And so, as the months passed and Sam felt himself being pulled deeper into the throes of what to him felt like the most genuine relationship he had ever had, Sheila on her part, steadfastly maintained the essential formality of friendship.
“Hi, Sheila right?” came a strident voice from in front of her. Sheila looked up in surprise, her knotty Kakuro* enterprise forgotten in the wake of the enraged woman standing at her table, staring down at her.
“Hello, yes…” Sheila was wondering who this was. Even as she filtered through her memory for an inkling of familiarity, the woman had launched her attack.
“Thank you for teaching me!” she said raising her voice quite a few decibels above the ambient hum of the coffee shop while looking at Sheila with the purest animosity.
It took Sheila a few moments to gather her wits, scattered as they were by this onslaught out of the blue.
“What… who are you?”
“You know my husband quite well – Sam Sivathamby?”
“Sam? Sam is married?”
“Yes! And I’m his wife!”
“Calm down! I had no clue he was still married. He told me he was divorced.”
Even while she said this, Sheila realized she was responding on the back foot to the woman fuming in front of her. She wanted to say instead that she had no romantic designs on Sam Sivathamby. That those had faded into the mists like ghosts of a Christmas that had come and gone at least four years ago. That while he now may be holding a flame for her, the one she had carried for him had been doused by lies and deceit a long time ago. But the woman in front of her was livid and Sheila’s intuition told her that she was beyond any logic and honesty that could dampen her immediate sense of righteous indignation.
“Calm down. I had no clue of your existence”, Sheila said again.
The woman glared at Sheila, her eyes blazing, reaching it seemed into her arsenal of resentment and hate that she had so meticulously and passionately amassed in the wake of her cheating husband. Instead, she turned away for a moment and when she looked back at Sheila, something different, something visceral seemed to have fallen into place.
Angeline stood looking at Sheila. Her outrage suddenly seemed ridiculous, pantomimed. The “other women” whom she had conditioned herself to hate with such intensity, who in all likelihood were themselves lured, trapped and played, were not the problem. They never had been. It was just easy to blame them. It had allowed her to keep the bubble that was Angeline and Sam, intact. In all its toxicity and ugliness, she had kept it together by not only whitewashing the man that was her husband but also by painting the other women in all the hideous hues that hell threw up in the wake of one scorned.
Now, the charade was over. The bubble had burst.
She took in a deep breath, feeling the bitterness and the anger leave her body. She felt oddly light as she finally reached for the feeling that had been hiding in the pit of her stomach all these years. The scene so charged with righteous fury a moment ago, transformed into one of clarity, honesty and acceptance.
“I … I’m sorry. Can we talk? I’m Angeline”.
* Tear Drop Island: One of the many whimsical names given to Sri Lanka because it is shaped like a tear drop.
* Kakuro: A Japanese logic puzzle that is often referred to as a mathematical transliteration of the crossword.
Angeline had arrived a week ago. It had been a whirlwind of lunches, high teas and inebriated evenings. Both Sam and Angeline were glowing in the newness of their couplehood, their romance springing wings in the festive Colombo air. That was also when he had got a message from Sheila. She was back in town. He had read the text with a mixture of pleasure and anxiety. Colombo was a small place and with the way he and Angeline were going about town, they could very likely bump into her. He couldn’t have that. He still felt the mad urge to get under her skin, to possess her. He did not respond to the message then. Once the hook was in place, he liked to take his time. Sheila will wait to hear from him. But not for too long. He had this impression that she wasn’t the kind to get desperate in love. The kind of desperation that he had made full use of in most of his other link-ups. Many of the women he had pursued had hung on frenziedly even when the excitement of the chase was over for him. It was why he kept them all at arms length; never inviting them home or on getaways to his secret hideaways around the island. Shiela was different. She was in control. So far.
Two days later, Sam responded to Sheila’s message and they met up on a Thursday evening. Angeline was busy with a family dinner that he had opted out of. It was the perfect opportunity to continue his other lustful undertaking. He walked into the alfresco bar and saw her sitting, serene and solitary at the far end of the table. His heart skipped a beat and his resolve to conquer intensified. They had a glass of wine and then he took her out for a drive. They went back to the hotel where she was staying, and they kissed. But she was not ready to go down the Sam-sired rabbit hole. He realised that he had to take it slow with her; he didn’t want to spook her. The urge to possess and devour was overwhelming, but he exercised restraint. He would have her, later rather than sooner, but he would.
Sheila’s sister and brother in law were arriving in Colombo in a couple of days. He definitely did not want to go down the road of meeting relatives. This was not meant to be a long term association. He would have to disappear for a bit. He’d come back later and he’d make sure he made her warm up to him again after that bit of essential escape artistry on his part. He had received a few messages from Sheila to which he had sent no response.
The next three weeks passed in a blur as he and Angeline prepared for the engagement amid the general festivity of the season.
The deed was done. He and Angeline were engaged. However, the euphoria that he had felt at the very thought of the milestone earlier, was now gone. A staleness was spreading over the now official union. He frowned. It was done. He had wanted it and he had got it.
Later that evening the engagement party whisked themselves off to the club for further revelry. Despite his six glasses of single malt, Sam had a vague feeling of anticlimax. He emptied the contents of the seventh glass down his throat and got up to dance. He suddenly caught sight of Sheila. She was dancing – with a man. Another man. Not him, but someone else. He felt the warm fuzziness slowly leave his body as he looked at her her. He wanted to grab her and hold her close. He hated the sight of the other man. He continued to look at her. Suddenly he felt Angeline grab him from behind, and cling to him. The heat of her body irritated him. He turned around and looked at her in barely concealed disgust.
“You’re drunk. Go home before you do something stupid. Go and sleep it off”.
Angeline watched her fiancé’s face, contorted now in spiteful contempt, his mouth twisting in that cruel way that it sometimes did. Even in her alcoholic stupor, she felt a ripple of fear course through her. She blinked. Maybe she was too drunk and imagining scenes from her version of relationship hell.
She had allowed herself to be bundled into a taxi and whisked off home, away from the mad cacophony of the club and hopefully, also from her anxious, tumultuous thoughts.
Sam had then gone back in, and headed straight for Sheila. Beyond her initial surprise at seeing him there, she was ineffusive at his sudden appearance after almost a month of radio silence. He looked at her and placed a protective, possessive arm across the back of her chair. He then got to work, channeling the full force of his guileful charm towards the object of his obsession. The fact that she had appeared happy and unbroken in the wake of his disappearance from her life had hit him like a ton of bricks. His vanishing act had been calculated and temporary but she wasn’t to know that. And yet, she had appeared cheerful and whole and in the thick of things. That evening he acted on the overwhelming and single minded urge to lure her back into his web before anyone else got to her. He had in fact, momentarily and in a screwy twist of irony, felt the same desperation that he usually precipitated in the wake of his myriad frivolous love affairs.
A week later, Angeline left for Margate. She was the drama teacher at a secondary school there and was in the throes of putting together a new and quirky version of The West Side Story, where villains were not entirely villainous and the good guys were all too fallible. She was a master craftsmen, and had a knack for taking old world literature and breathing new life into it. She planted little bites of present day reality into sixty and seventy year old tales to nip at the sensibilities of her fan base, which now consisted of more than just the parents of her students. She had also recently opened up her own theatre company; the Drama Queens had got their very first season commission to perform at the Hazlitt Theatre in Maidstone in the spring. She was going to be busy while also getting the paperwork completed for her husband-to-be to join her a month later.
That month back in his bachelor avatar, Sam rallied and shone. He had also redoubled his manipulation and bewitchery of Sheila. With time, he had become both fascinated and intimidated by the woman he had come to know. It had been a slow process as his usual love lusts tended to go, but he had finally enchanted and mesmerised her and made her fall in love with him. He wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to marry her. Aloud, on wine filled evenings, he had spoken of wanting to have children with her. The way in which she had looked searchingly into his eyes, into his soul, had rattled him. It was something he’d said to sweet talk her, to coax her into letting her guard down. To get under her skin. Usually, he felt nothing whispering these alcohol induced happy-ever-afters. She was different however; dignified and self assured, and he actually felt guilty off and on when he made one of his dramatic long term affirmations to her. Being a seasoned and indiscrimate assailer of hearts however, Sam paid little heed to thes pin pricks of conscience. He continued his tender assaults until it was time yet again for Sheila to go back to Dhaka and for him to start on his new adventure in England.
Angeline woke up to the tinny version of Vivaldi’s Spring* as her phone rang. It was Sam. Her sleep-filled face lit up as she reached across to her bedside table to pick it up.
“Hello darling! I’m coming over to make you breakfast!” chirped his upbeat voice from the other end of the line.
Angeline sat up in bed, her face now wreathed in a grin.
“I’m waiting. Come!” she said. The call ended but she still held onto her phone as its customary morning coolness began to thaw in the glow from her skin. She laughed a little laugh of pure joy and exultation. She was absolutely, totally in love. All over again in fact; the adolescent romance rekindling like the spark had never quite gone out.
Sam and Angeline had been childhood sweethearts. They’d lived through the civil war in their country and through all its small and large inconveniences – much of the privileged class had been spared the actual horrors as many had fled to safer geographies before the demons of war and atrocity had landed at their doorsteps. Angeline’s parents had relocated the family to Margate in Kent in the UK; its miles upon miles of sandy beaches a fond reminder of the ones they’d left behind.
Sam’s family had moved to the capital metropolis of Colombo. There they had quickly become a part of the still multi-ethnic, generally harmonious melting pot of communities. Sam had gone to school, made friends and had ultimately landed a job in the corporate sector. And through it all, Sam had basked in a coveted secret: Quite early on, he had realized that he was a charmer and over the years, he had taught himself to skilfully wield that weapon of lust and passion; for a weapon is what his single-minded, amorous pursuits had become, and he used it expertly and unsparingly in all his major and minor interactions with the ladies. It is not far from the truth to say that he had in his wake, left a sizeable brigade of confused, heartbroken and furious women.
But Angeline was nothing if not bouyant and optimistic. With a marriage a piece behind each of them, second time was going to be lucky she thought with hope and elation.
She had come with her parents to the home country as she always did, once a year. This time however, Sam had bestowed her with more than his customary single visit. He had in fact, been coming over to their home in Battarmulla almost every day, seeking out her company and stirring up little sparks of joy in her heart … and her body. She had always thought he was gorgeous but with that distant adoration one usually reserves for a favourite but unattainable movie star. Now everything seemed more visceral, more real including the way her breathing quickened when she saw him.
And so, it had turned out to be one of many beautiful mornings of shared gastronomic labor, tingly closeness and enough oxytocin to sink the whole kitchen. For Angeline and Sam, the rest of the fortnight passed in a blur of meeting up with friends and dancing many a night away cloaked in the fuzzy warmth of wine and ultimately in each other’s arms. By the time Angeline was leaving for Margate, their couplehood was official.
Angeline left and Sam picked right up from where he’d left off. It was another Saturday night and Sam had decided to go to the club. He sat at the bar brooding seductively. He knew he had the goods to approach whomever he wanted to; he was fully aware that he brought more than his fair share of charisma and beguilement to any table occupied by the ladies. Tonight though, he had come with the boys. They would drink, exchange a few words and absorb the scene full of women and other men who were also out and about to see and be seen. If any of them caught sight of an especially delectable specimen of the opposite sex, they’d sportingly and magnanimously bring the tantalising exhibit to the others’ attention. It was an unspoken camaraderie between many a band of adventuring men out on the town in the wake of a spirited weekend.
He had caught sight of her then. She was also sitting at the bar. He smouldered in her direction but only for a few moments. The room was too thick with people and their ricocheting hormones for his silent seduction to work. So he asked one of the barmen to take a message across. She then had only to look at him for his charm to do the rest of the work. The messenger came back after a bit with an unsatisfactory answer. So, she was a tough one. He could feel his pulse quicken as it always did when he was up against a challenging object of lust. He sent the bartender again, this time with a little more detail about himself. He had deployed this strategy of sharing his persuasive corporate background on a few other instances and had successfully thawed the occasional ice maiden he had encountered. Sure enough! She had finally looked his way. He bid a cheeky adieu to his comrades and walked towards what looked like a promising rest of the evening.
Sam had not been prepared for such an onslaught of his senses. She had been cheerful, confident and also quite unmoved by his allure beyond engaging in a friendly conversation. He had to deploy the full force of not only his ample charm but also his intellect. She challenged him in ways that other women of an evening out, did not. His efforts had been rewarded not in the fashion that he was used to but for his state of mind and heart at the time, it was enough as she agreed to him dropping her and her friend off at their hotel later that night. They were visitors to the island and were leaving for their home in Dhaka in a week. He felt the familiar urgency to wrap up this pursuit, the way he did all of his passionate endeavours.
The next evening, he met up with both women at the bar of their hotel. They all had too much wine while listening to the resident band play tunes from the 80s. Again, the evening had come to a close … not entirely satisfactorily. He had now also begun to get the distinct impression that this was not going to end the way he wanted it to. She was not besotted or taken in by his singular attention to her. He, on the other hand, had begun to “catch feelings” as his nephew said when he came to pick him up after one of his chaperoned dates with Sheila; her friend was always there in what was feeling more and more like a quaint modern day version of a Victorian courtship. His agitation however, had quite quickly transformed to a focused assault of her heart and her mind. He had to get under her skin and into her head before he could advance in any other direction.
Sheila left for her home in Dhaka, but was coming back again for some work in a couple of weeks. He would wait.
Sam was feeling euphoric and invincible these days. It was his high period. He had just emerged from months of listlessness and lethargy, and the hell that was other people; he truly admired Sartre’s* unapologetic disinclination towards tolerating humanity. Half the time he could absolutely relate, but these days he was feeling alive. And after the less than perfect lust enterprise of the last ten days, he wanted desperately to bask in the triumph of effortlessly captured hearts. And so, he had called Angeline and told her that he loved her. And then, he had asked her to marry him. The adrenaline and the dopamine had then gone to work as he raced around on a delirious high. In some lucid corner of his mind though, he had been almost as surprised as she was when he’d popped the question. But he was feeling good and this was going to be good. Angeline the woman, and Angeline the diva had always made him feel good. This was probably what love was. His mind wandered. Sheila also made him feel good; alive. He’d just met her; he hardly knew her. She was a passing fancy he told himself; although as fleeting fancies went, she was obviously not passing out of his system fast enough. She had a strange air of mystery and reserve which had mesmerised him, and so she too swirled around in his thoughts for the next few weeks.
Sam was smiling. Angeline was coming to town next month. They were going to be engaged. He thought of all the men that constantly hovered about her like moths around a flame, wanting in one way or another, to make her their own. The thought of their crushed and defeated love quests made his heart swell even bigger. She was going to officially become his woman, Mrs. Sivathamby. He grinned.
When are you coming back? Thinking of you – he wrote the message and sent it into the ether to find its intended recipient. Sheila’s phone lit up as she received the message. She looked at it musingly. Was this getting serious she wondered. She looked at it a little longer and in her deliberate introspective way, decided to wait until later to respond.
* Vivaldi’s “Spring”: Part of a musical composition called “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi, a 17th century Italian composer. The first concerto of the composition is Spring, describing its freshness and beauty.
* Sartre: A 20th century French playwright, novelist and political activist as well as a leading figure in French philosophy and Marxism. “Hell is other people” is a famous line from his 1944 play No Exit.
I’m sitting today at a new cafe They bring me my tea in a beautiful cup And a saucer to match. I catch My breath. It reminds me so much Of the tea set so loved And cared for by your beautiful hands. Of the cups of tea that were sipped In your company, by smiling lips Listening to a conversation Laughing at a joke And your own tinkling laugh I remember it. I choke.
I remember so many late afternoons Like the one that just pierced my heart So many memories, tender and raw Memories that flood in and then depart Replaced by others, thronging along … Like the one of you putting an earring on My ear where the flesh always fused Making it an adventure, a laugh a ruse. Or when you bit into an elephant’s ear The pastry, the confection, the palmier! The chemo still filling your vital veins Dripping its disease numbing potion within You still grinned; your face came alight You kept all the simple joys alive. And then I’m assailed by another memory Of another cafe where you and I had tea, You sipped it slowly with your eyes closed Your beautiful face in gentle repose You smiled and I heard a contented sigh And that smile from your lips reached your twinkling eyes …
Today, I’m sitting at a new cafe But in my mind I’m with you on all those precious days.
“I love you and only you You fill my heart in every way I will be but a shell if you Call it quits and leave me some day” Said the man with the twisted lips As he held her close, hands on her hips He’d done this a lot and then changed gears The words felt absurd even to his own ears.
She looked into eyes that were gleaming with fire Was it hope, was it love, was it lustful desire? The three entities then followed behind As she walked into the space of her heart and her mind There she sat them down, the judicious sleuth And looked into their faces now lit up with truth Hope sat there wilted, there was hardly a trace Of sincerity and faith on its mottled face Love was like a wraith of its radiant self Like old dust that had drifted off of the shelf Smouldering away in the furthest corner With sly little tentacles sat covetous Desire It looked at her trying to hide its true hues But in the light of the soul that was hard to do.
She lifted the heavy hands from her hips Bestowed a smile from her beautiful lips “I suppose I should say a heartfelt thank you But I won’t; those words, they just don’t ring true”.
Sometimes while I sit, engrossed in life My brow lightly furrowed, concentrating On getting the task at hand done Running my five miles in the circle of creation
I hear a rustle, a little whisper Of someone on the periphery of my thoughts I glance up, as if to see the vision Of that someone that always flits across My mind on busy days like these Resting otherwise in my heart; I glance as if that heavenly soul has Bridged our realms that are so far apart.
I look up, afraid to lose the thread Of that feeling, that gentle touch Of someone nestling in my core Someone beloved, someone missed so much. I look beyond into the blurry depths Of my vision, desperately holding on To that fleeting caress upon my cheek Gifted, bestowed by a precious one.
The atoms of day, ricochet and I blink Once, twice. I am back in the circle of life I grope twice, three times for that lucid moment When i was in the same space, alongside Someone who most days quietly rests In the warmest nooks of my being A cherished one who on special days like this Takes my hand, eyes twinkling as she beams!
I glance up, my soul surging with joy For that precious moment, filling the void. Sometimes while I sit, engrossed in life I am touched by a beloved for a sweet moment in time.