Sangam House

SangamHouse

 










A MILD CASE OF HOPE by Ajay Krishnan

With an affectionate tip of the fictional hat to Haruki Murakami’s ‘The Kidney Shaped Stone That Moves Everyday’.

For ten minutes Bikram had been leaning against the bar without being served. He’d tried waving, but hadn’t been seen, had tried calling out, but hadn’t been heard. He now sat on the bar stool, staring at the bartender and hoping to be noticed, too embarrassed at being ignored to risk any more attempts at getting the man’s attention.

While he waited a woman slid onto the bar stool next to him and, with one sharp click of her tongue against the roof of her mouth, summoned the bartender.

“Ma’am?” said the bartender.

“A double rum with crushed ice, lime and sugar. What will you have?”

Bikram realised she was talking to him.

“A whiskey and soda,” said Bikram. He had said ‘whiskey’ to the woman and then, feeling silly about giving his order to her, had said ‘soda’ to the bartender.

The bartender moved away to make their drinks.

“Impressive,” said Bikram.

“What is?” she said.

“I’ve been ignored for the past ten minutes. You appear and you’re served in a few seconds. Must be the tongue thing.”

“This?” she said and clicked her tongue, drawing the bartender’s attention to her again. She winced apologetically and shook her head to let him know that she wasn’t calling for him.

She smiled. “Must be the tongue thing,” she said.

In a few minutes the bartender brought their drinks, laid two napkins on the bar counter and placed the glasses on the napkins. Next to the glasses he set down a bowl of broken salted cashews. Then he slid a leather bill folder across the bar to Bikram.

“That’s nice,” said Bikram to the bartender, “You won’t take my order, but when it’s time to pay the bill…”

The woman pulled out some money from a wallet and handed it to Bikram. He added a few notes to it, placed the money in the folder and handed it to the bartender.

“Enjoy your drinks,” the bartender said to her, and moved away.

Bikram watched as she popped a few pieces of cashew nut in her mouth and chewed slowly, rubbing her fingertips together to dust off the fine grains of salt that clung to them. She was of slight build, with short, wavy hair that was kept in place with clips. From the angle at which he saw her he noticed that she had a small, sharp nose, upturned at the end.

“I’m Bikram,” he said.

“Hello Bikram,” she said. She held her hand out to him without telling him her name. He took it and pressed it gently, enjoying the warmth of it against his palm. When he let it go she raised her hand to her nose and sniffed at it. Bikram’s eyebrows shot up.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“Just checking for a new smell on my hand.”

“My smell?” he said.

She nodded as she smelled her hand again. “There’s a lot you can tell about a person from the way they smell.”

“And what have you just learnt about me?”

“That you smoke.”

“That’s easy enough. What else?”

“I think you’re an editor. Of books, I mean. Not a newspaper.”

“Impressive.”

“And…” The woman put her palm to her nose again and sniffed, more intently this time. “And you’re an atheist.”

Bikram laughed. “That’s amazing,” he said, “Three out of three. How’d you do that?”

“Like I said, there’s a lot you can tell. If you know what to smell for.”

“And what does an atheist smell like?”

“I don’t know how to describe it. I think of it as a higher temperature smell than a believer.”

Bikram took a sip of his drink, enjoying its bitter sting in his mouth. He put his glass down on the counter.

“My turn,” he said.

He raised his own palm to his nose and smelled it. It smelt like it always did. A bit of sweat and a bit of soap. Perhaps a faint whiff of a perfume that was not his.

“Ah, this one’s easy,” he said, “You are in some sort of creative profession.”

“Wrong. I am a finance person in a software company.”

“Oh,” said Bikram.

“Oh?” she said.

“Well I suppose that can be creative,” said Bikram.

“No. It can not,” she said, and he heard her very distinctly separating the words ‘can’ and ‘not.’

“Okay. Next try,” said Bikram, “You have a sister.”

“Only child. Strike two!” said the woman, seeming delighted with Bikram’s failure.

“Damn it. This isn’t as easy as you make it seem,” said Bikram.

“It just takes practice. Next wild guess?” she said.

“You…” began Bikram, then trailed off and, narrowing his eyes, peered at her.

“I…?” she prompted.

Keeping his gaze fixed on her, Bikram raised his hand again and sniffed as loudly as he could. The woman laughed. “I’m getting something,” said Bikram, “But it’s quite faint.”

“Well hurry up!”

“No pressure please. You’ll make me lose it.”

“Quick quick quick quick,” said the woman.

Bikram dropped his hand into his lap with a mock-sigh of exasperation.

“Lost it,” said Bikram, “I almost had it.”

“Too bad,” said the woman, “So no more guesses?”

“Alright. One more guess,” said Bikram, “But this isn’t a smell-based guess. Just a random guess.”

“Fair enough,” said the woman.

“You are a very good cook,” said Bikram.

“Wrong again. And you’re out of guesses.”

“You are a very bad cook?”

“Still wrong. As it happens, I am a very average cook.”

“Damn. That’s zero out of three,” said Bikram, “I’m terrible at this game.”

“The more people you smell, the easier it gets,” she said. She held her glass out to him.

“What are we drinking to?” he said.

“I don’t know. Smelling more people?”

Bikram thought for a moment. “I’ll drink to that,” he said, then raised his glass and clinked hers gently. They sipped from their drinks. Bikram noticed that she exhaled deeply after taking her sip. He’d always heard it was rude to do that, but now it didn’t come across to him as offensive at all. He thought it was quite becoming, in fact, her unabashed expression of pleasure.

They sat in silence for a while. In the silence Bikram realized just how much he was enjoying the woman’s company. He considered asking for her name, but decided he would prefer not knowing it for a little while longer.

The bar was beginning to swell with people. The music was a steady, driving electronic pulse in the air that pleasantly filled the spaces between conversations, and over which occasional bursts of laughter could be heard.

When neither he nor the woman said anything for a few minutes, Bikram was suddenly seized with worry that she would get bored and leave. At the same time he sensed that this worry was unfounded, that she didn’t actually expect or want him to thrill her every second with his conversational skills. Yet, the worry remained. He racked his brain for something to say.

“So, finance person, single child, average cook. Interesting profile,” said Bikram.

“Why thank you, smoker, editor, atheist,” she said.

“And what do you….” Bikram left the question unfinished.

“What do I…?”

“Nothing.”

“Were you going to ask me what I did?”

“Ok, yes I was.”

“I think it was last mentioned ten seconds ago.”

Bikram sighed. He wondered whether to continue trying to impress her. He liked her. Enough that he hoped to spend the rest of the evening with her. And see her again if she agreed. But the thought of trying to keep up a crackling conversation to achieve that exhausted him.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “My social skills aren’t great. In case you hadn’t noticed.”

“I hadn’t.”

“Well, they aren’t.”

“They seem fine to me.”

“I asked you the same question twice.”

“It happens.”

“I wish it didn’t.”

“Here’s a thought, Bikram,” she said, “Maybe it wasn’t such a dumb thing to do after all.”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“Well, I have already told you what my job is. But the question ‘What do you do?’ can mean more than that.”

“So…”

“So, maybe you should ask it again.”

“The same thing?”

“The same thing.”

“Alright,” said Bikram, “But I think we should first create a lull in the conversation. Then I’ll come in with my question.”

“Done. The lull starts now.”

She spun her stool a quarter circle away from him to face the bar. Bikram did the same. For the next minute neither spoke, but every once in a while, they caught each other’s eye and smiled politely. She drummed on the bar with her fingers. Bikram wondered how to perform his end of their ‘lull’, and all he could think of doing was scratching his chin occasionally. After some time he turned to her again.

“So…” he said.

“So,” she said.

“What do you do?”

“You don’t want to know,” she said.

“I do,” he said.

“You don’t.”

“Why?”

“It’s strange.”

“I enjoy finding out strange things about people.”

“You may not like me once you know.”

“I doubt that very much,” said Bikram, and he immediately found himself wondering whether that counted as an admission of his attraction towards her. He hoped it did.

“Alright,” she said, “I’ll tell you. Because I like you.”

“So,” he said, “What do you do?”

“Listen carefully,” said the woman, “Because most people I tell this to don’t hear it right the first time. And then I have to repeat myself.”

“Listening,” said Bikram, by now giddy with curiosity, “Carefully.”

“I climb trees,” said the woman.

***

Later they went to dinner at a rooftop cafe which stayed open all night. It was an expensive place but Bikram had decided to enjoy himself without worrying about the money. There were just the right number of people in the café—not so many that it seemed crowded, not so few that it seemed deserted.

They sat at a table near the parapet of the terrace and waited for service. They were both slightly drunk.

“Can I tell you my name now?” said the woman.

“Don’t,” said Bikram, “At some point tonight. But not right now.”

“You’re strange.”

“I’m not the one who climbs trees,” said Bikram. He pointed into the lush canopy of a tree that rose above the cafe. “So do you know what tree that is?” he said.

“A rain tree,” said the woman.

“And have you climbed a rain tree before?”

“Several. Including this one.”

“Really?” said Bikram, “And how did the general public react to that?”

“The general public never knows, because I climb when they’re asleep. Usually between 2 and 4 in the morning. Sometimes there’re garbage men around, and sweepers, but it’s easy enough to avoid them.”

A waiter walked over to their table and handed them menus.

“Mineral water, regular water?” said the waiter.

“Regular,” said Bikram and the woman at the same time. The waiter went away to get the water.

“I have a question,” said Bikram.

“Ask,” said the woman.

“What if I said I don’t believe you? About you climbing trees, I mean.”

“That’s not really a question, is it?”

“Why not?”

“That’s a statement hiding behind a question.”

“Well I’m curious what you’d say or do if I said I didn’t believe you.”

“You’ll have to say it to find out.”

The waiter returned with a jug of water and poured out two glasses, during which neither Bikram nor the woman spoke.

“Can I take your order?” said the waiter when he had filled the glasses.

“Give us a few minutes,” said the woman.

The waiter went away.

“Well?” said the woman.

“Alright,” said Bikram, “I’ll say it. I don’t believe you.”

The woman smiled. “You know, a part of me hoped you’d say that. Now listen. My number is…” And she recited a string of digits at Bikram.

“Wait –” said Bikram, interrupting her.

“Just listen,” she said, and began with the first digit again. “Remember that,” she said when she had finished. She looked around the cafe. “Now comes the fun part.”

The people at the other tables were absorbed in their food and their conversations. The waiter was busy talking to the bartender. No one was paying any attention to their table.

The woman pushed her chair back a few feet.

“Call me,” she said.

“I don’t understand. What do you –” began Bikram.

He didn’t have time to finish his question.

The woman shot out of her chair and, in three smooth strides, reached the parapet. She put her hands on the wall and pushed herself onto it, and, for a moment she sat crouched on it, her palms resting beside her feet.

Bikram stood up and moved towards her. He was still several meters away when the woman leapt off the parapet and sailed through the air towards the branches of the tree outside. All four of her limbs splayed out as she approached the branch, and just before she reached, her hands curled backwards slightly to prepare for impact, a kind of movement Bikram had only ever seen before in an ape. Noiselessly she hit the branch, grabbed it and, using her momentum, swung herself over the branch so that she was sitting on it, one leg dangling off on either side. Then she stood up on it and walked easily, swiftly, as if it were flat ground. She took few steps and kicked herself off this branch towards another one that was higher and further away.

Grabbing the edge of the parapet, Bikram looked into the canopy. He could still see her, but she was moving deeper and deeper into the darkness. He took a breath and opened his mouth to shout out to her, but stopped himself. Looking around he saw that the others in the cafe were still busy with what they were doing. No one had noticed what had happened. He turned back towards the tree. The woman was now just a faint shape in the dark. The shape moved further away, and was soon indistinguishable from the gently swaying shadows of the tree canopy.

His mind reeling, Bikram returned to the table. He sat down.

The waiter came over.

“Can I take your order, sir?” he said.

Bikram forced his thoughts back to the present. He opened his menu and read out the name of the first dish that caught his eye. The waiter nodded and wrote down his order.

“And what about madam?” said the waiter.

“Madam…I don’t think she’ll be coming back tonight,” said Bikram.

The waiter looked surprised for an instant. Then he got to work, clearing the place setting opposite Bikram’s. When he had finished, Bikram was left alone at the table.

For a few more minutes he sat, staring. Then he remembered that she had told him her number. He thought back to the moment. He had interrupted her, and she had started over again. He found that he could remember the digits. He called the waiter and asked for a pen. On a piece of tissue, he wrote out the number.

***

Bikram didn’t call her the next day. Or the day after that. Partly because he was worried that he might not have remembered her number correctly. And partly because he wasn’t sure what he would say to her when he did speak to her. Should he apologize? Or should he make light of the whole matter? Or, he wondered, should he be annoyed with her?

Four days later he called her in the evening after he had returned home from work.

“Hi, it’s Bikram,” he said when she answered.

“Bikram!”

He wasn’t sure, but he thought she sounded happy to hear from him.

“Why didn’t you call earlier?” she said.

“I don’t know. I wasn’t sure what I’d say.”

He heard her groan. “You think too much,” she said, “Anyway, are you free this evening? And if you are, do you want to meet?”

“Yes, I am,” said Bikram, “And yes I do.”

“Good,” she said. They decided on a time and a place, a seafood restaurant in the suburbs. Bikram felt a bit light-headed after the call was over.

***

When they met at the restaurant, she continued in the exasperated tone she had used over the phone.

“Four days?” she said, “Who waits four days to call?”

Bikram realised that she was, in fact, nagging him, and if it were anyone else he would have been put off. But right now, with her, he found it utterly charming.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I shouldn’t have done what I did. Were you angry with me?”

“Not really. Just a bit taken aback.”

“I felt like such an idiot later. I wanted to impress you or something, I guess.”

“Really?”

“And I suppose it stung my ego a bit when you said you didn’t believe me.”

“Right. I’d forgotten about that.”

“And I was a bit drunk. Still, that’s no excuse. I promise it won’t happen again.”

“Ok,” said Bikram.

“Ok,” said the woman.

“By the way,” he said, “I have a question.”

“What?”

“What’s your name?”

“I still haven’t told you?”

“No.”

“It’s Aditi.”

“Hello, Aditi.”

“Now that the formalities are out of the way, let’s order.”

They had a very pleasant evening. The food, they both agreed, was delicious. The service was efficient and unintrusive. And, to Bikram’s delight, conversation flowed easily, without him having to try too hard.

After dinner they lingered outside the restaurant. Bikram lit a cigarette.

“Can I have one?” said Aditi.

“I didn’t know you smoked,” said Bikram.

“It is only our second time out together,” she said, “You can’t expect to already know everything about me.”

Bikram held open his packet and she took a cigarette. He lit a match, cupped his palms around the flame and held it towards her while she leaned towards it with the cigarette between her lips. Then she straightened up and blew a stream of smoke over Bikram’s head. They sat next to each other on the steps of the restaurant, their hips and shoulders pressed close together, and smoked in silence.

When they finished, they stubbed out their cigarettes.

“At the risk of sounding easy,” she said, “I am now going to invite you to my place.”

“And at the risk of sounding easy,” said Bikram, “I am going to accept.”

***

They made love slowly that night. Afterwards they lay curled together, very still, his head on her shoulder, her legs draped over his waist.

“Can I stay?” said Bikram.

“Of course,” said Aditi.

“You don’t think things, between us, that they’re going too fast or anything?”

“No. Do you?”

“Surprisingly for me, I don’t.”

Aditi gently pulled herself away from him. Then leaned back to him, and placed her lips on his neck for a few moments.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” she said then, and walked to the bathroom.

While she was gone, Bikram looked around the bedroom. There was a low wooden bookshelf crammed with books. A large, gaudy poster of a Tamil movie he had never heard of, possibly pornographic. A neat desk with a pen stand. Blue curtains. He got up and went to the window. The street outside was silent. The watchman at the gate had gone to sleep, his head lolling against his chest. The nearest working lamp was at the far end of the street.

There was a row of trees just outside the window, tall and thin, with long, pointed leaves.

“They’re ashokas,” said Aditi from behind him. She walked up to the window and stood next to him.

“Ever climbed them?” he said.

“Of course.”

“The trunks seem too thin to climb.”

“It’s another kind of thrill.”

“What do you mean?”

She laughed. “I’d have to show you,” she said.

“Show me.”

She turned and looked at Bikram, a playful frown across her face.

“You do remember what happened the last time I tried to impress you?”

“That was different. I was unprepared. We were drunk. This time I’m asking.”

“It’s a bad idea.”

“Please.”

She remained silent. The only sounds were of their breathing, and of the faint roar of the occasional car, somewhere far away. Bikram stepped closer to her and they put their arms around each other. They kissed. Then, she slipped away from him, towards the window.

Bikram laughed. “Put on some clothes,” he said.

“Why?” she said, and hopped easily onto the windowsill.

Bikram felt his own body tighten. “Careful,” he said.

“I am,” she said. And jumped.

This time her body arched to one side as she approached the tree, and her hands opened and aligned vertically to grab the trunk of the ashoka. Again, Bikram noticed the backward curling of her palms. She hit the trunk and swung around it, running her feet lightly over the smaller branches. And then the soles of her feet were against the trunk, propping her up. With her hands she began to pull herself up the trunk. Her feet followed, walking. She walked up the trunk, higher and higher. Soon she was out of Bikram’s view. He waited at the window, his ears pounding.

He noticed that the trunk was swaying. Gently at first. Then more perceptibly. Bikram worried about Aditi, and wondered if she was used to the swaying. The tree swayed more and Bikram leaned out of the window to try and see her. It was then that he realised why the trunk was swaying. High up in the branches, Aditi was hanging onto the trunk and throwing the weight of her body from side to side, swinging the ashoka first one way, then the other. He couldn’t see her face, but in the grey shape of her body he saw the freedom, the sheer glee of climbing. Her legs hugged the tree and with one hand she was holding on, while with the other she reached away from the tree. The tree swayed wider and wider and then, in one smooth movement, she let go of one trunk and stretched out with her arms to let the next catch her. For one brief moment Bikram saw her, suspended in the space between the two trees, a naked silhouette against the sky. And then the first trunk sprung back, freed from her weight, while the next one bent forward to hold her.

He heard her laugh. It was only a soft laugh, but it seemed to fill the air along with the creaking of the trunks and the rustling of the leaves. He lost track of how long he was at the window. He was riveted. Terrified, exhilarated, as he watched her swing and soar from trunk to trunk, playing against the downward drag of gravity and delighting in every triumph. And the row of ashoka trees bent and twisted to her every whim, one tossing her to the other, and the other to the next, till Bikram no longer knew whether Aditi was playing with the trees or the mighty trees were playing with her tiny body. Gradually they began to grow still again, until he could see only a gentle rocking of the trunks. Aditi remained high in the branches for some minutes, her arms and legs wrapped around one of the trees. She slowly eased herself down the trunk, dropped lightly onto the windowsill and climbed back into the bedroom.

Bikram saw that her body was covered with scratches. Some were broad white scrapes, and some were sharp lines tinged with red. From one scratch on her back welled drops of deep crimson.

“You’re hurt,” said Bikram.

“I’m fine,” said Aditi.

They lay in bed again, she on her stomach. Seeing him move towards her, she began to turn over. But he pressed her down, and held her still.

He went closer, and then ran his tongue over her neck, traced the curve of a shoulder, and then down her back till it found the cut in her skin. She winced. He licked it, his tongue picking up the tiny drops of blood that had gathered along it. He licked it again. Over and over he covered it with his tongue till the wound glistened, clean. He moved, along her back searching for other scratches. And when he found one, he stroked it clean, his tongue growing more practiced in the act of caressing her scratched body. She, at first tense with pleasure, began to relax, soothed by his touch. She turned over and he directed his attention to the scratches in front, the rough streaks of white across her breasts where her skin had flaked off, and the pink welts on her stomach. He moved smoothly, tirelessly, from one place on her broken skin to the next.

She was asleep when he finished. He moved away and watched her. The rise and fall of her hip as she breathed. There were no marks visible on her body. Outside, the ashoka trees were quiet and still. And although it was dark he thought he saw the pale first light of day beginning to warm the night sky.

Ajay Krishnan was a resident at Sangam House in December 2009. This story has appeared in Other People: The Sangam House Reader vol. 1.

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