Who are you when no one is watching?

Aslam thinks as he slams Chandni against the wall, still kissing her. He curses. That was more zealous than he imagined it and he wonders whether she noticed this solecism. She’s still kissing him--probably playing along. She even moaned a bit back there which is not a bad thing unless she’s broken her spine or some such. He then decides to slow things down and go for textbook tenderness. And so, he moves his hand from the back of her head to cupping her chin as if it was a goblet of an expensive wine all the while still kissing her. Somewhere down the line, he’ll brush the hair from her eyes and look into them with a glassy-eyed tendresse that even his wife doesn’t think he is still capable of.

His hand hurts. Stupid wall slamming move. Looks great in the movies but not such a great idea with actual body parts against actual walls. Chandni has, in turn, grabbed a butt cheek and his still hurting hand makes for breast, and he surmises that the time for classical tenderness is at an end. His other hand is at her ear lobe doing something that drives his wife crazy. What it is doing to Chandni in bodily terms, he is as yet, unsure of.

The earlobe as a locus point of his attentions makes him wonder about the Markov chain of events that led him to that particular outskirt of her anatomy. The closeness began when he showed her a measure of empathy for her troubles with her husband’s family. The family, from all counts, was more bonkers than the everyday family. Mostly about the dowry they expected from her family post-marriage. The special spice of bonkers was that Chandni had a love marriage and who the heck, expects dowry in a love marriage and that too, with a mixed heritage, slightly Caucasian woman! This though was no good reason for Chandni’s mother-in-law to be cheated out of her half-kg or so of flesh gifted to her by years of tradition. Couple this with the fact that Chandni’s family was in caste terms, iffy. This led to a treatment of Chandni that was an inglorious throwback to 1800s pre-British dowry-related harassment.

Aslam was incredulous but sympathetic. He found it difficult to reconcile to the troubles she was facing against his own SoBo canvas. But she still fascinated him. Chandni--with her mixed Indian-Slovakian heritage combined with her village belle-ism, her idealism, and her feminist poetry-peddling was a tangram of intellectual exoticism. An adventure far removed from the industrial grade stoicism of his every day.

His interest in the schematics of her also then makes him wonder about himself.

Who was, or more pertinently, is he?

Is he Aslam, the second-generation industrialist, who married the very accomplished Rubeena at a prominently non-Muslim wedding a decade ago? Or is he now, a man on the cusp of an unwieldy destruction because his mid-life crisis--as his friends call it--involve a sexual adventurism with this girl from nowhere important? He remembers being in their study: him failing to write poetry because of a disturbing but exciting memory of Chandni making instant coffee while nude, as Rubeena painted in watercolors--a break from their respective vocations. Verdi ricocheting against their immaculately decorated walls. Their eight-year-old Mubashira bouncing around, talking in candent terms about the mummies in Egypt from their last vacation there. He remembered being tripped up by the step-mother potential of Chandni but he Marcus Aurelius-ed through the moment. Things were good before this metastasis with Chandni came about. But was that really Aslam? he asks himself as he wonders whether his father was right about the implications of dispensing with faith for a life of hubris.

He feels the chastisement of the memory of his father, as the smell of Abbu’s Wills Classic phantoms into his nose and he immediately becomes this smear of a man now fondling through Vero Moda-ed dress, a nipple belonging to a married woman he has known just 3 months now. This younger-by-eleven years woman, who is now grinding tectonically to his ministrations as his mouth trails lazily across from her lips to her chin, kitty-cornering to her neck via a slow, scenic route. Here the topography allows for a plunge to her clavicle which is made swiftly available by a right-swipe of thumb under willing fabric.

What follows has all the tell-tale signs of an un-dressing until there is a last-minute return to the kissing because he thinks he hears his father’s memory tch-tch in that gnawing way just as he forays further. He’s hoping that she sees it as just a sort of prod and tease of his intonations.

Eventually, his father’s memory takes his leave.

“Must be time for his prayers,” he thinks to himself and curses his father’s Allah for all the times his father has taken leave from him and his mother.

Suddenly, Chandni stops kissing him. She hurries to get him unclothed.

“What’s the rush?” He asks, in a tone that’s part 60-grit sand paper and part chainsaw pre-massacre.

“Chandragupt may come home. You know we don’t have a lot of time,” She replies, with eyes that out-puppy-dog puppy-dog eyes.

He is differently annoyed at two things: one, that his dance of tongue and skin over heavily circumscribed erogenous zones has been interrupted. (Foreplay is something he enjoys nowadays especially since Chandni provides such a glorious canvas).

The other is that she has been keeping track of the imminent arrival of the smegma that is the brother instead of focusing on the sensations he believed he was delivering in spades. A betrayal of sorts.

The various vectors she brings to their bedding then dispels him from his own introspection, and he wonders about what more he knows about her. He knows that she’s a half-breed Indian/Slovakian from some tiny, non-Bombay place in Maharashtra. He knows that her possibly hippie Slovakian father is the reason she has an interest in poetry, and that he has met and liked him in the ways that men of words automatically like other men of words. He does not know how a Slovak came to be in Maharashtra until Chandni tells him about the cult of some Amma that her mother and father are part of. He wonders momentarily whether the commune allows for adultery in ways that don’t buy him a fate burning in hell? He sniggers. Better hell than some fucking loony cult.

He does know he dislikes strongly her brother for being shifty in his persona and just generally mediocre. Aslam’s dislike extends to the brother in shallower ways: to begin with his twat beard and then for the smell that seems to emanate from the room and the bed on which he and Chandni fuck that seems to suggest rotten fruit within the prime of its stink.

Maybe he is the prime of something that stinks as he circumgyrates back to thoughts of Rubeena and the faltering marriage she still seems to be clinging on to. He begins to feel that old pain in his chest, that feeling of drowning. Maybe the advice of taking something benzodiazepene-ic might be worth considering. Instead he returns to Chandni, as she eclipses everything else.

He knows that Chandni is married and that she and her husband says “I love you” in multitudes to each other over the phone as if they were mantras to dispel some ill-omen. He finds their religiosity with each other cute enough to discount the deception that he’s part of. On some days, when the husband calls during their love-making, she shrinks away from Aslam to answer the outmoded Titanic-themed ringtone.

In those times, Aslam surprises himself when out of an exaggerated sense of lasciviousness, he follows her, and throws himself to the cause of having her all hot and bothered through his déclassé ministrations. She, in turn, tries to maintain an equilibrium in her voice while glaring at him as she engages in the inanity of spousal conversation. He wants her voice to crack, to gasp, to moan even. He wants her voice out of breath, as she is run ragged with the effort of mind over mons. He wants for hubby dearest to ask what is the matter. He wants for her to lie, wants for her to concoct a story. Something bordering on the believable. He finds odd victory when she leaves the room, and he enjoys the sway of naked form against the frame of the door to the pista-milkshake-colored bathroom. It's an image that abounds in its ability to bring him to orgasm.

During other times, he would smoke a slow, leisurely cigarette keeping an eye on Chandni speak to her husband in low, conspiratorial tones. Then through an uncertain but efficient violence he would snub the cigarette, dress, comb his thinning hair, call his man-Friday, and leave. He would not answer Chandni’s ensuing phone-call until a later that was much, much later.

He doesn’t know the husband although Facebook suggests through spurious motives that he be friends with the man that has an inordinate interest in bikes and beards.

He wonders whether he considers the beards in her life as inferior because of some traumatic kink in him that he cannot put a finger on.

In this context, his once imperious but now broken father has a beard, a scraggly remnant of the Byzantium of his youth, which he built on the flattened, scorched earth that was Aslam’s Parsi mother.

Years later, Aslam stopped giving the Ba’yah to his or any other Father. Rebellion followed.

The resulting rampage was a narcoticized and alcoholicized floundering. All until Rubeena came along providing psychic ballast.

What use though? For present evidence suggests that he was still his father’s son even in matters of wifely destructions. This, even though he is recognizably un-bearded and should have shorn those old sins from himself.

He tries to clear his head as he is led Polo-t-shirt-less for the finale of their post-work, pre-prandial rendezvous. He is uncomfortable being nude in even fractions and does not switch on the light as they walk in. He has a bit of a paunch not ideally suited for rolls in the hay with fair-skinned odalisques of semi-Slovakian ancestry.

He swings her around (he tries as far as he can to ensure that she doesn’t see him).

It is not the worst pirouette in history and now her back is towards him, putting her at perfect distance for an unzipping. The dress slinks to the floor. Its descent not merely a function of gravity. He allows her a moment of separation to kick the dress to safe havens because it really is quite nice a dress.

He brings her closer, with one-arm around her, cupping breast while the left-hand busies itself with the Quantum Decoherence of her bra.

Her hand reaches behind to his hair and tugs him closer for kissing that is now more hermetic seal than anything else. Her other hand is being un-fly with the button fly.

The bra falls. Then, a switcheroo permitting a journey for the bra-unclasping hand from her ilium straight down to somewhere beyond her commonsense cottons.

Soon, la vermeillette fente.

Chandni moans.

After what seems like an age of small-furry-maybe-injured-animalistic sounds, she turns to him and whispers, “my turn” in a tone that melts entire continents. In subsequent action, she relegates button-fly to the null and void. They mattress. What follows is fellatio, an adjunct to their lovemaking which still unsettles him because of how new the terrain is.

It is a terrain not frequently visited with Rubeena. He wonders why for just a moment. After all, answers come with uncomfortable truths.

At a later stage he will wonder what the ecological half-life of his physical estrangement with Rubeena, in the aftermath of Chandni will be. He is resigned to the possibility that perhaps there’ll always be traces of contamination and that the future may well see him awkward with her. He hopes that it can go back to how it was. He has his doubts however.

What follows then is abject surrender as he closes his eyes to this synesthesia that Chandni is slowly constructing for him. A few minutes later, she bails within sight of familiar shores, comes up for air, and post the resuscitation, whispers “I love you”. Following this, she mounts him and accompanies him to foregone conclusions.

Later he lies awash in the moonlight. Eyes still closed.

*

On the drive back home, he finds himself missing Chandni and it’s not been 23 minutes yet, which even to him seems ridiculous. He goes over the evening’s vignettes lingering momentarily at the architecture of her arching back. He still has it he concludes, and is pleased by this conclusion as he slows down near one of two garbage dumps that dot his drive home.

Here, ritualistically, he will chuck the plastic bag containing the condoms, the cigarettes, the spent coffee, the pay-and-park stubs, sometimes a poem in need of heavy editing from her to him, a sanitary napkin, invoices for a thousand and one meals and some of the other trash that Chandni and he have amassed in their temporary domesticity. He is acutely, almost painfully, aware that he’s mixing the dry and the wet trash. He winces.

While driving away he does not make eye-contact with the last murder of rag-pickers there. He is not answerable to them after all.

During other times, he wonders and panics about the microscopic remnants of him he’s still left at that rental home of hers: hair, errant nail cuticles, plenty of DNA, an eye-lash or twenty, skin cells, spittle and cum. He worries about him being implicated through DNA in the event of a fictional murder at the property. His mind playing out scenes of court rooms where his silence about his motives about frequenting that sleepy building leads to a much too harsh sentencing. Other times, he smash-cuts to a part of him bearing witness to a montage of generations of Chandni yet to come as they frolic in and around the biological leftovers of their momentary conjoining. He wonders about being a relic discarded, as entire civilizations build from the foundation of a woman who exhibits maturity and leaves to go back to her husband.

Now, the last 15 minutes before home. This is usually the time that he’s plotted mendaciousness to give to Rubeena for questions he knows she won’t ever ask.

He’s always respected her intelligence and is therefore, at a loss as to why she isn’t reading into his infidelity. The sight, the sounds, the changed inflections in his speech. The smell, oh my God, the smell of Chandni that resides in the tenements of his being. Here, he sniffs his fingers.

Even in terms of touch, he is girdled with sensations that are remiss. Like this new weaponizing of his daughter Mubashira as a human shield between himself and Rubeena in family photographs. Or the fact, that commonplace everyday touches between them now feel synthetic as if there was a lamination of something polymeric between them.

Why isn’t she catching these little things?

Like he can always tell when Chandni is talking to her husband because she leaves the room whether or not it’s a video call.

Similarly, he believes he knows: the moments in a movie that will make Rubeena cry, the syntax of every facial tick, every ebb, every flow of her facial features as they respond to relatively innocuous emotional stimuli. He knows the order Rubeena shops in their favorite organic foods store, where she lingers, what tests her resolves and the thermal coefficient of the smile that she smiles to different people.

What is the nature of the hygge that they seem to be residing in? He wonders whether she actually knows and whether they’ve reached an impasse such that it doesn’t matter whether he’s fucking someone else. His irritation is maxed out when, as per every night, she turns to him, in a moment that has no physical escape, and says “I love you” and he replies with an “I love you” that is practiced ease--as if there was something Pavlovian in how it has come to be.

He wonders what this means for Mubashira and himself and whether he will be able to hold the ground he has with her if she ever finds out in the future. A father, after all, is an abstract, disposable concept going by his own experience.

It is then, that he thinks about the “I love you” Chandni had whispered to him pre-orgasm. He realizes he has not answered in the concomitant manner that this sort of communication demands.

Does he love Chandni?

He ruminates over it and is not utterly certain of it. This is because--he knows by virtue of the same certainty--that he doesn’t unlove Rubeena. There is warmth there even though he might go home with kisses still stale with Chandni.

But, what sub-classification of beast is he, that he can do this to the woman he loves?

Who is the woman he loves, for fuck’s sake?

Here, out of sheer force of will, and now, experience, he slows the spiral down. He reasons that Chandni turns Europe-wards soon, and he can then go back to being Rubeena’s Aslam for good. Chandni can go back to the bearded one. Easy-peasy.

Except that he knows it won’t be that easy unless he gets to telling himself a story that would seal the matter. He knew from writing and reading, that stories, not reasons, were needed when one is returning to matters of faith. His rationale mind would be best served if he gave in to a story while not pandering too much to the facts that he had strayed and that his deracination was of his own making. Nah. In this he merely saw himself as an atheist. A kafir returning to the fold. He’d need a story where he was tempted or was somehow almost victimized through some contest of will, and how he was now returning homeward. Heroic, in his oh-so-human frailty. Heroic, in the fact that he had fallen but would rise again through atonement. He had to surrender to this story, as he knew Chandni would, to her story. His handing over of his freedom to an enslavement by the story he would choose for himself would yield him forgiveness. Even happiness. In time, if he played his part to the hilt, the story might even be entertaining. Not in the way of a pleasurable, funny story that bears repeating but in the hushed tones that comprise the story of a saint. Of course, he’d have to pay his debts to make the story a success but at least he liked that here, at last, was a way back home.

Besides he knows all of this because he is his father’s son in the sinusoidal, and importunate aspect that he might destroy his family by remaining in this marriage where the love, like some storm of old, has come and gone. In that sense, it’s an old story.

Right then, at the sixth turn before he’s home, his phone rings. It is Rubeena. She inquires about how far away he is and after a geographical pin-pointing of locations, she asks if it would be too inconvenient to pick up some bread from the bakery on the way home. She nags about it being whole-wheat instead of being only brown. He acquiesces to the errand. Then, after an odd silence, and in a voice that’s ill-fitting to the proportions of the comfort they share, she asks him if everything’s okay.

Abbas Bagasrawala is a writer of food blogs, non-fiction, fiction and even less frequently, poetry. He’s had the privilege of being one of the few people published at The Bombay Literary Magazine for fiction as well as for poetry. He's also been publish in Nether Magazine and Vayavya for poetry. He lives in Pune with his family where his day-to-day involves dealing with the travails of an engineering business and life in general.