by Malini Mohana
Thaali (Malayalam): A thaali is a necklace that is tied around the bride's neck, which identifies her as a married woman.
The thaali and the ring. They were both on my table, the weight of each pushing into the pin cushion. David was lying next to me with his arm across my belly. Sleep had eluded me since the engagement, so I would often pass the time by watching light from the window move slowly across his body. It wasn’t particularly exciting. But it was only in these moments that his clawing familiarity was diluted by the dimness of the night, and I could remember how he once made me feel, a mere month after meeting him - intoxicated below inky skies, as he slipped his hands under my dress and I pulled him, laughing behind the dunes. New love is that compulsive obsession with strangers. Smiling, sensual beings whose insecurities and banalities have not yet been drawn – just beautiful pencilsketch-humans that you choose to paint yourself. Seasoned love is the scandalised discovery that their full-spectrum canvas had been painted long before your arrival. Worse, that your work was amateur at best. My mother’s understanding of love, however, was measured in levels of compromise and acceptance. My friends’ definition bordered on the saturated eroticism of book covers, and then there was Nina. Nina’s definition made the most sense to me. “Da,” she once said. “Love is the only time you’re ok with someone reimagining you. A complete dissolution of ego”. I guess that David had done that for me. He had always made me feel colourless, nameless. Like a nobody. I had found that liberating.
On that evening, I picked up the ring and put it on.
I met Nina long before David, in our second year of college. The year in which I nicknamed myself Marty. Just one syllable shy of Madhuri, just two shades too dark to pull it off. I had blue locks, hung out with hipster boys, drank cheap beer. Back then, whenever I spoke, I would always hear myself as others heard me. Exotic and well-spoken. Foreign but relatable. Speaking of strange places and flourishing languages, about foreign food and the lawlessness of The East. Nina was different. A wild-haired Keralan girl in my political science class, who donned croptops to class, smiled too seldom and laughed too loudly. By the time she had turned twenty, she had lived in five countries and spoke Malayalam, Hindi, English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa and German fluently. She swore in impressively lyrical Malayalam and passed time in lectures by making up ludicrous stories about Keralan communists to an earnestly shocked audience. Nina was also the kind of person towards whom many felt a level of hatred - the type of hatred that breeds and crawls in people’s late-night loneliness.
Years later, I felt that Nina’s lack of popularity was perhaps not because she was particularly goodlooking, or smart or talented. But because she acted as though she was. She had the audacity to express a complete trust in her own adequacy. And that is often just a little too much for most to tolerate in a woman.
It took one gloriously bad Easter function in which a certain Tony Uncle drank four cases of beer and sang God Save the Queen a total of nine times for Nina and I to strike up conversation. I found solace in her unapologetic sense of self, and her total obliviousness to it. The tributaries of her migrations met and continued to flow with indifference as she walked through life. She, on the other hand, simply found my clichéd rebellion amusing, until such a time as the blue box dye and the hipster boys were abandoned.
It was Nina who later introduced me to David. Eventually, she would become the reason I married him
“You don’t seem happy for me,” I said, as I ripped tears in a shiny sweet wrapper.
The women who attended my engagement celebration slowly dissipated throughout the course of the evening, leaving Nina and I alone and finishing off dreggs of wine at an overrated restaurant.
“Of course I’m happy for you,” Nina sighed, signalling the waiter.
“You’ve been offish this whole evening.”
“Madhu, I’ve supported you and David from the very beginning.”
“You don’t have to like him.”
“I do like him.”
“He’s a good man. He’s what you needed.”
Nina took her last sip of wine and started tapping her feet erratically on her chair.
“How well does he know you?”
“He knows me better than anyone,” I snapped. The intensity of my conviction drew stares from a plasticine brunette, who hissed immediately at a waiter about noise control.
“Why do you still eat with a fork and knife around him?”
“Do you eat with your hands around him? Chorrakarrikumbor?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“It’s just a question, Madhu,” she said, watching me as the waiter brought the bill. I remember looking on as Nina leaned back and smiled at that waiter, in her carefully careless way. Sensual strangers and pencil-sketch humans.
“Alright,” I said, and started packing my bag with unnecessary vigour.
“Madhu, come on...” she started as I stood up to leave.
“Is it not enough that this is what I want?”
I suppose it was a plea at the time. A plea to nod, to smile tightly, to agree to play the role. The wheels of my relationships needed that slickness, however unpleasant, to keep turning. Plasticine Brunette continued watching as I stared Nina down, too curious to resume customer complaints.
Nina opened her mouth, closed it, and then apologised. She helped me pick out my wedding dress the next day, and the flowers. And the cutlery. We never spoke of the knife and fork again.
Otherness. It’s riddled with lines and limitations, extending like nerves; easily pained, just as easily unnoticeable. There are no clear feelings of antagony. Occasionally, a nerve dulls and everything feels a pale approximation of what it should be. It lurks in the smiles, in the goodbyes and the hugs, in the casual greetings. It edges the sorrys and the sweet affections, wafting off them like cheap perfume. It is like going through life medicated, or slightly drunk. I saw it in my mother all the time, even after 19 years of her leaving India. In her new land, her reactions were controlled, overthought, always fell a few steps short of what she expected them to be. Others never noticed the measured steps she took, walking through life with her arms stretched out, doubting and feeling and deciding how much space to take. Settling for the quiet corner. They would not know that she assessed all her actions and requests with the same concentration they use speak a new language. But I knew, because I saw it in myself - passing a mirror in a store, or sitting in a large group. I would watch the comfort in their laughs and their language, the confidence in their place and their talk, the indignance at waiters for getting their orders wrong and managers for not providing raises.
I looked away from the mirror as I dropped my shoes in the wardrobe, and saw my mother standing in the doorway. She was wearing the salwar kameez that I loved; a deep swirling blue, the long fabric coiling behind her like smoke.
“Enthopati?” she asked, bringing in a cup of tea.
“Onnumilla, amma,” I said. Nothing’s wrong. I felt a clutch of love as I watched her wipe the table carefully with her shawl and set the tea down, humming softly to a tune playing in the background. She had grown up hearing her mother’s songs, the radio stories that played in balmy evenings during tuition and homework, her father’s old poetry on weekends. Unlike me, she had learnt the melody and twang of her mother tongue long before English. Yet, I understood my mother’s ideas far better than my own. I understood why she never said “I love you”. And I understood why David always did. I knew why those words held a space between him and I, and why it had no place between myself and my mother – a woman who summarised the world with a “sarramilla, pottey”. It doesn’t matter, let it go. Yet, from everybody else, I had come to learn to expect those proclamations, those sordid shows of affection that I had assimilated with David. He loved me with all he knew, and I loved him in a second language. With accomplishment and temerity. Maybe I had only wished that I could feel justified in loving a man who couldn’t say my name. Or maybe I wished I could feel justified in not caring.
“So I put this on after the ring, Marty? Or before?” asks David. He seems fascinated with the thaali. At its gleaming allure and its unfamiliar sentiment. “What does it mean?”
“Well basically the ring equivalent in India or something,” I said, looking through photos of flower arrangements.
“Awesome. Should we do it before or after the vows?” he asks, holding it up to the sunlight. I wished he would put it down.
“How about during?” quips Nina, who was sticking beige invitations in beige envelopes. “Y’all can break into a Bollywood routine right after. Resulting in your Aunt Magriet’s sudden death and simultaneous summoning of her angry ancestors from the grave. It’ll be a lank jol.”
David laughs and I shoot Nina a sharp look.
“Yea well, ancestors aside, Marty never lets me watch Bollywood with her,” he said.
“Yes Madhu, you two should marinate in culture together. Why don’t you practice a Sharukh routine for the reception?” she winks at me. David, good-natured and none the wiser, smiles along.
“Ok enough with you”, I said, ushering Nina out with a bride-to-be catalogue.
“Can we make him wear your mother’s salwar on the wedding night and tell him it’s what Malayalee grooms have to consummate in?” whispers Nina to me as I elbow her out.
“I will slap you.”
“Charlie, Suhesh or Nikhil?” I asked.
“All of them,” she said, flicking ash into the ground as she blew out smoke.
“At the same time?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. As homoerotic as they were, I highly doubt they would have been comfortable with that arrangement,” she laughed, stubbing the joint out. “I don’t remember the order but each throughout the course of third year.”
Her jaw relaxed as she lay back on the grass, her mane of hair catching the brightest stars.
“Pick of the year?”
“Oh definitely Charlie. He was very inventive. And incredibly grateful.”
“Of course he was grateful. He had a Masters degree in insects.”
“Come on. How many in third year?”
Nena sucked air in through her teeth and made a disapproving tut.
“That guy’s a prat.”
“Well, he’s someone else’s prat now,” I said.
Nina always sensed my standing just a little to close the docks. Her hand found mine and pulled me back, and I thought, deliriously, that we had breathed in the universe whole, the stars reverberating in our palms. I wanted to say it out loud to her, but I was afraid she would laugh in that haughty way that she laughs at men.
“Sarramilla, edi. Pottey,” she whispered. It doesn’t matter. Let it go.
I watched Nina and my mother from a distance. In a country far from their own, two generations apart, they sat together making garlands of jasmine and rose, laughing about the aunty from the next block and the size of her husband’s brinjals.
“Edi Madhu! Have you seen Jose Uncle’s brinjal?” Nina yelled at me across the room. “It’s ginormous. Apparently the trick is organic cow dung.”
My mother feigns smacking her as they continue cackling. Their connection had always appeared unusual to me. It was as though they had existed in different frames, and right at the end of the film, their stories were slotted together. The grainy sepia of my mother’s world, and the blinding spectrum of Nina’s. They reached through each other’s frames and gently sewed garlands together.'
It was not long after that that my mother died. A few weeks in fact, in a car accident on the highway leading into the city. Not so much as a shawl left behind. Unremarkable and unnanounced. The last transaction she made was for a jersey, a bag of rice, airtime, a pair of socks, and a packet of cinnamon sticks. I read the list that evening and I laughed at the price of her departaure, making Nina shift on the couch next to me. See, love is not the only thing that dissolves egos. Death is apt at it too. I recall now that I had, for the very first time since the engagement, forgotten about the thaali and the ring on the pin cushion, waiting in my room.
It seems like decades now since the day of her death. For a long time after, I could still remember each dimple on David’s body. Each laugh line, each smirk and frown, every freckle – my personal painting. I’d slowly begun to lose him too, when I lost her. Suddenly the central point of my story had shifted, and with it, my characters.
Our conversations became jilted. His empathy for my depression dissipated after a few months, and soon the colour I had painted into David seeped out the margins. I caught myself finding his touch and his moans irksome until, eventually, fucking became an obligatory kindness.
“Di, it’s been 11 months,” said Nina. She touched my arm, and I could see my mother’s sepia in her skin. I clutched onto her hand.
I used to stay at Nina’s for three or four days a week. To feel anchored, I told David. He didn’t ask further, but he didn’t protest it. Grief had become my uninvited visitor in our home, and he had become weary of hosting us.
“Eleven and a half months, actually.”
“You say you’re fine. But you’ve stopped therapy, you don’t see family, you don’t see friends –“ “I see you.”
Then she raised the question I suspect she had wanted to ask that night, aeons ago at that overrated restaurant in that different life. “Do you really want this wedding?”
“I want to become happy.”
She looked at me then, the glowing embers in her eyes catching the orange of the candlelight, deliberate and cruel in her silence.
“I hope you become happy too.”
I was drifting then. The beacon in my dock had sunk, and I flailed in the tumults, grasping for anything solid. I needed to feel held down, defined. I needed someone to reclaim me. My mother took Madhuri with her, and all I had left in me was Marty with the blue box-dye. Without my mother’s presence, relatives felt like someone else’s family. Wan smiles in old photographs of people who were unreachable. So I held on to Nina instead, who called me Madhu and occupied my world in the blithe way she occupies her own. I started speaking only Malayalam to her. She didn’t ask why, just spoke it back. I could understand her otherness, and she knew mine. She invited me and Marty and Grief in, and smiled with us and made us chaya. In the evenings she would lock my uninvited guests out, throwing the blanket over us so I breathed only her. I never told her how much I had needed her then. Perhaps it’s difficult loving in your mother tongue.
Thinking back now, it was inevitable – my eventual fall into the arms of David.
It’s meant to be a momentous day, the wedding. Where glitter falls and shoes shine and beautiful people are drenched in sunlight, their laughter flitting in and out of windows. I looked at myself in the mirror, away from it all. The white grecian dress slid off my shoulders, my hair curled back with my mother’s chutti hanging down my forehead. I am wearing all her jewellery. Her bangles felt as though they were burning gold welts in my skin but I daren’t take them off. The ring and the thaali were still on their pin cushion, still waiting.
My hand is on Nina’s leg and it felt as though we had been sitting there for hours. There was a new Uninvited Guest in the room today, but I didn’t quite know what to name it. Somehow, I felt the way I had felt at my mother’s cremation. The way one feels as a child, having accidentally lost your parent’s hand, the space around you expanding to a breathing mass.
I picked up my ring and my thaali. I held out both to Nina.
“Which one should I use?” I ask
Nina picked the thaali.
She twirled it around in her hand. “I’ve always imagined you in one.”
The faulty sound system meant that the band was still doing soundchecks in the background, the muffled thud of bass and languished nadaswaram instrumentals lulling in old films. I took the gold chain back from her as I rose and sat to her left. In my hands, I held out each end of the chain in front of her. Allowing her to reimagine me, hoping that she would. Neither of us moved as reflections off the gold played on her face.
Without a word, she leant into the reach of the thaali, her face next to mine, as I tied the chain behind her. I can still smell her jasmine and rose coiling between us. Her hand found the side of my neck, a nail gently tracing the arch of my jaw, the stars still reverberating in her palm.
Dulled sounds of my aunt admonishing the technician drifted through the windows with the smell of warm and spicy sambar. I looked at Nina wearing my thaali, the gold slithering over her collarbones and dripping into a tiny petal between her breasts. My hand reached for the Sindooram on the side, and felt the heat rise off her scalp as I brushed the crimson along her hair parting, powdery grains landing on her nose. She sneezed and laughed as I wiped them off. I would have wept for what had just been lost.
The band was now playing jilted thabla covers of ABBA among children laughing and the dimmed clanging of knives and forks being dumped in boxes.
“Are you going stay for the ceremony?” Nina remained silent.
It caught in my throat, what I wanted to say to her. The phrase that David had said to me countless times and would say to me for years to come, in the absentminded haze of the morning, in the heated breaths of our closeness, in the slow, dead afternoons that grew wider. Throwaway words like shiny sweet wrappers. They stayed stuck in my throat.
The corners of Nina’s mouth tilted down just slightly before she smiled. She slipped her thaali under her shawl and walked me to the podium.