Achaar – (A Short Story)

Where are you? What are you wearing? Why does the thought of you make my heart thump all of a sudden? What are you doing today? Who are you meeting? Who is lucky enough to see you? How do you smell today? Can I come close to you and just rest in that space between your ear and your neck and inhale you? Why do we love? Why does it hurt so much when we do?

Did I manufacture this by choice? Or did I have no choice at all? It wasn’t love at first sight – no, I thought you beautiful, but was shy, there were others present. It was after the conference, and we were all pretending to be grown-ups while wearing name tags like children on the first day of school. But second sight – yes, definitely. The second time we met, seeing you in that cafe in Sydney, I had already fallen. That’s how I recall it, anyway. I couldn’t take my eyes off you. You had come from work, and were dressed smartly. I remember your shapely legs, the colour of your blouse, those high heels. I loved the fact we were the same age, and that we showed the signs of it, our respective experiences written upon us, in the deeper laughter lines at the corners of the eyes, or in the frosting at the temples; we both lightly wore the past, but there are other signs that are hidden, which can be discerned in a gesture or a glance. The colour of your eyes… I have never seen such a beautiful colour.

It’s six minutes past nine in the morning, nearly forty degrees already, and I feel exhausted. If I sleep again I know I will dream of you. The fan is slowly stirring the air. It slows, stops, and then shudders back into life as the power returns. Is it cold where you are now, in that world of offices and suits and ten page risk assessments to do anything? Winter in July. How do you do it? – I know you hate it. You’d love it here though – the heat, the birdsong, the colours. No computers, no power half the time. You’d be like one of those hippie girls doing yoga on the beach, searching for meaning. I am searching for meaning too. I appreciate the sentiment that this is the first day of the rest of our lives – I know all that. But it feels like there’s nothing left to be said. I’m in love with you. That’s all. I don’t know why. I just am.

We play at indifference, maintain a cordial politeness, a certain professional reserve. We have to; what unbridled passions might rise to the surface otherwise? Do you distract yourself? I distract myself – I do other things, go out with friends, see other people, or try to. But it doesn’t work. How long in the silence of message and response is too long? Where does the absence of reply become drawn out so tight that the tension in it sings like a fever in my ears? I know, you were busy. You are popular, and rightly so. But how long before the very thought of you doesn’t stab me like a knife?

Why you? Out of all the women in the world, why should it have fallen to you to be the object of my desire? I apologise. Yes, I do. I didn’t want this to be a burden. But I desire you. I try not to, I catch myself if I begin to think about you in other ways, more passionate ways… but I do. The sultry nights are a torment. All I can think of is lying together and holding you. I hope you never see this. But I know you know.

You know, I love my wife. She is a steadiness, a strength in my life, which I cannot conceive of losing. I am there for her as she is for me. And it has taken will – some strength of will on both our parts, to stay together, although sadly children are not there. (It is me, not her.) But we decided it was worth it. You know our custom here; a marriage is more like a business agreement. Certain criteria are met: family, education, etc., and then the transaction is agreed. It’s different in your society I know, but there’s a misnomer – you call our way an arranged marriage (which is true), but as opposed to a love marriage. Be assured, I am in a love marriage. But not in an ‘in love’ marriage. I didn’t marry my wife because I was in love with her; that came later. We grew to love each other, and although we were both in our twenties, it felt like the kind of partnership you might see with old people sometimes – two of us supporting each other. The other day she was startled by a lizard when she opened the kitchen cupboard, and she jumped, and cried out: “Heeee!” But she was smiling. And my heart turned over because I saw that young girl I married, and I was filled with love for her: this woman who can be startled, joyously, by a lizard in the cupboard.

You do not have a husband, I know – nor even a wife (I know how different your world is to ours – men marry men, women marry women. It is admirable). You have lovers, certainly – boyfriends, one night stands, friends with benefits… lovers. You love them as I’m sure they love you. Who could fail to be drawn to your radiance? But do they feel as I feel? Are they completely smitten? There’s something rather pathetic about being so helplessly in thrall to another. I struggle against it at times, and enjoy the delicious heat of anger, rebellion, the luxury of resenting you for it. How dare you take my heart like this? But you didn’t. You didn’t. It was all my doing. I fear hurting you psychically somehow. How could I ever hurt you? What have you done to me?

My wife is making parathas in the kitchen as I write this, and calls out to me. Do I want achaar? Mango pickle. She doesn’t like achaar, but buys it because I do. I get up, go into the kitchen where she is deftly flipping the parathas over the open flame. A strand of her hair has fallen over her eye and she brushes it aside with the back of her wrist, causing her bangles to slide up her arm with a soft clacking. She looks at me enquiringly. I embrace her from behind, lower my head onto her shoulder, and to my surprise as much as hers, tears form in my eyes and I give a single, harsh sob. Unspeaking, she switches off the gas, turns to face me, and hugs me tightly.