I woke up to a steaming paper cup lowered over my face. Through the slender fingers from which the rolled and waxed paper cylinder suspended, I looked up at the woman towering over me, her slight face cupped in the valley between the twin bowls on her chest. She wore an off-white satin sleeveless night-gown with elaborate frills at the neck. The gown flowed down at me from her valley, like a wild blooming river in monsoon. She lifted her right foot, curled her toes around the hem of my vest and moved it up along my body exposing my tickle-zone.
“Are you getting up or else…,” she said playfully, mischief lurking behind the deep black eyes laced with long straightened lashes. She then poked her big toe into the handles of my waist, moved it sideways, up and down. Up and Down. It shook my anatomy. From the epicentre where her toes touched me, the tremors shifted my organs – both inside the outside – and a ripping sensation crawled on the skin. I was a fish taken out of water. I curled, jumped, turned, twisted and flipped, part laughing, part choking. As I flipped over and over, she kept on tickling me on the sides of my waist, laughing rapturously, kicking me. The hot tea was now dangling dangerously from her right hand just over my groin.
On a different day, I would have imagined her small bright face with a tiny cat-nose that was almost always cooler than the rest of her body; I often pressed my cheek against her nose and loved how it felt. Her eyelashes rubbing against my skin. Black dancing eyes below the long eyebrows arched like albatross’ wings. Her playful eyelids letting me into a world that the abyss it held within. Her tresses swinging like a wind-swept curtain in the morning breeze and swarming on her face, separating it into a thousand lovable zones. Untied short hair at the edge of her temple wandering about. Sleep still sleeping in her eyes, making them even deeper, more enigmatic. The sunlight filtering through the dusty window pane, bathing her body. To my somnolent eyes, she would be glowing. Her soft supple lips doing most of the talking. I loved the way she pouted them, biting them, moving the lower. Wrinkling the upper.
But I was not thinking of any of these today. I had other plans in mind. I was in no mood to taste the tea that hung between us. I knew I had to disarm her first. The boiling tea. I slowly lifted my hand, turned my palm upwards and took the cup from her. She continued her giggle the pure innocent giggle of a baby. For she had no idea what lay in waiting for her, in my mind. I was going to kill her.
I turned my head and kissed her left toes (including the spiral silver ring that decorated the middle). She jerked them away. “Ummmmm…, ” she uttered. Her little nostrils flared and the warm wind from them washed my face. Her cheeks turned a distant pink and she stopped tickling me, as if she anticipated my next move. But even then, she had no idea.
I slipped my fingers into hers and locked them tightly. I then gave her hand a quick yank and simultaneously, kicked her right foot with my right leg. “Ouch… ” She staggered. I pulled her towards me so that she fell in the right place. She fell to the floor. This is what I was waiting for. I grabbed her by her shoulders, flipped her down rising on top of her. I pinned her hands by her sides and sat on her in a murderous vein. She twisted her lithe body and wringed her wrists to escape my steely clutch. But her attempt was preposterous. “Oooo…my stomach hurts,” she blurted out. I grabbed her neck. Her eyes flung wide open like a broken oyster and her tongue stuck out, pressed between her teeth. And then…we burst out in laughter.
“You…you… are…a…pathetic actor, ” she said, laugh choking her words.
I shifted my weight to my knees and slipped myself down her length to the roundness of her thighs. I had let go of her hand and now she was playfully curling up her hair with her left hand, looking at me with her shifting-talking eyes. Her gazed sifted rapidly through my face, halting for a moment. On my ears, nose, eyes, chin, neck. The springs of her hair rolled on her face.
“You are worse,” I shot back, nursing my injured ego. “You made no sound when I grabbed your neck. And you don’t necessarily have to stick your tongue out”.
“No…you are pathetic,” she took a deep breath, “…and heavy.”
We lay on the ceramic floor, her softness pressed against its hardness, separated from it only by a thin bed sheet that she had gotten from her home town the last time she visited for her cousin’s wedding. The joints in the tile stenciled to the sheet, creating an overlap of straight bland lines on the delicate traditional hand-woven pattern. Stacked on our sides were street-dog-coloured cardboard boxes neatly tied up and sealed. The label read, “A.K. Packers and Movers”.
We packed into each other and moved, on the floor, in the narrow alley of the box city. I bent forward and kissed her earlobe. She bent her neck side-ward touching her shoulders with her cheeks. The root of her body hair swelled and the smooth skin got littered with tiny lumps. I began pulling down the fastener of the zipper that ran from her neck to waist. The fastener that held key to the pleasure that I was denied for several days now.
Suddenly there was a click above. As if something hit the overhead fan. She pushed me away with an instinctive jerk, partly sat up with her hands supporting the inclined torso and turned to her side. A shocking hysteric scream ripped the air. She blasted against me, hitting me hard on my chest. I fell to the floor, rotating on my hips. She shut her eyelids tightly, creating folds around her socket. Her heart was hammering me and her nose spewed fire against my skin. I heard her cry. I patted her back and hushed her. Suspending my neck slightly over the floor and sticking my chin to the neck, I rolled my eyes all the way down and tried hard to look around from the difficult position I was in.
Two things fell from the roof. One didn’t make much sound. The other sounded like jelly hitting a rock. Thup. A corrugated pale yellow tail. A thick interweaving of rings at the severed end tapering down gradually. It wasn’t aware of its disjunction from life, wavering on the floor like the tail of a snake almost into its hole.
The Thup looked down. A lean tailless pale yellow lizard clinging to the wall of one of the boxes kept near her legs. It looked nonchalant. It was slightly disturbed, but not what you expect from somebody who lost a limb. I thanked God that she hadn’t seen this yet. While still holding her, I picked my sandal from the floor and launched at it. It slithered quickly on the wall as if it were horizontal and hid behind the tube light ballast. Where once spiders lived.
“I won’t stay here anymore,” she said after wetting a good part of me, still sobbing and making croaking sounds. Tear glistened on her face and last night’s kajal flushed out of the channels of her eyes and smeared on her cheeks. Her disciplined eyelashes now bumped into each other, wet and soft.
“Don’t worry sweetie. I will make sure it doesn’t bother you anymore,” I said to her without knowing how. Below my skin, the inchoate bodily desire died a premature death of an aborted foetus. I was feeling a tormenting, tantalizing loss of a kid from whose loose noose the dragonfly has escaped.
The house was a warehouse, packed with gunny bag wrapped packets, cardboard boxes, bubble wrapped furniture, stacked plywood planks of the beds. Suitcases flung open in the hall with their contents scattered about. Locked and stale air hung in the house, pregnant with the smell of tarpaulin and fresh paint.
A cake of dust decked the floor. Harried shoe marks floated in them. A woman’s, a man’s and strangers’. The rusted iron net on the window swelled from dust and belied the gap between. Aluminium channels jammed from hardened paint dripped from the unskilled brushes. The same brushes that made the sea-green and the pale rose paint to climb clumsily over the edges of switchboards and door frames. Fossilized cobwebs lay stiffly behind the pink sea-green layers.
Behind the dusty window panes, sun bounced off.
My wife dreaded lizards. Several times at night she had woken up from lizard infested dreams, panting, sweating and screaming. Then she would stare at me blankly. “W…a…t…e…r…, my throat is dry,” she would say in a voice like breaking wood. I would sleepily grope the floor and hand the bottle to her, and wait with closed eyes with the cap for the bottle to return. Some days I watched the lump in her throat rise and fall as water dispatched down her in batches. She would then wipe her face. The cap would then rotate back into the mineral water bottle with its label ripped off. The broken night would continue until the fat mosquitoes fell asleep. Until outside the contrast changed from occasional bright windows against dark walls to dark windows against bright walls. I would then learn that the climax had been remarkably the same. A gigantic lizard chasing her in a desert. A desperate run to escape. The chaser finally hurling its sticky tongue at her, wrapping and pulling her into his mouth, her scream drowning inside the slippery stomach of the predator. At this point, the sand disappears into the bedroom cupboard and she wakes up screaming.
I wondered about her idiosyncratic feelings towards lizards. I thought black-blooded cockroaches, not lizards, were a woman’s universally consistent nemesis. I was surprised to find out that not only could she comfortably hold the cockroaches on her palm, she could even play with their moustaches. Ignoring the look on my face, she says that unless you leave food uncovered to allow cockroaches to crawl or fly in and have a taste of it – occasionally drowning in it – these creatures did not pose any significant hazard to domestic existence. On the other hand, in her opinion lizards were not only dangerous but were also terribly ugly. She cited several unrecorded instances of lizard-drops in which for some reason the little reptile screwed up its vertical journey, and dropped on humans causing serious infection that took weeks to heal.
Fortunately, the accident on our second day – I remember the day not for what happened, but for what didn’t happen – at this apartment was the only one for a few weeks to come.
When we settled in, the dust unsettled on the dusty window nets, giving away generously when insects flapped their wings through them. However, apart from the solitary lizard and occasional stray insects, we did not have any other unwanted winged or legged visitors. Occasionally we forgot to shut the balcony door before evening and mosquitoes hummed around merrily before falling to the floor, made unconscious by the mosquito repellent vapour in the concentration chamber of my bedroom, to be trampled later at my convenience.
And so we co-lived happily. But happiness has a short life. Not always because the conditions change but because mind changes. Our yardsticks and references change. For happiness is more a state of mind than a collection of measurable, definable conditions. For me, however, conditions changed.
They came gradually, dropping in one after the other. Cockroaches, Flies, Ants. Our kitchen is where they met, had buffet, made love and procreated. I saw the antennas of cockroaches probing below the silverware in the sink and behind the masala boxes. Ants lined up at the honey bottle. Flies hovered around the dining table. With rains, even the groom’s party arrived. Moths, crickets. A consortium of flying creatures swarmed the house, crisscrossing each other like war-zone enemy planes, humming and whizzing across our faces. They refueled themselves in the fluorescent light, resting on the wall. We had to sleep with our heads covered and keep the doors and windows locked all the time. The wall was a dotted sea green.
Disgusted, I bought a spray can. A nozzled metal cylinder with diamond box in the back that said “Danger” in two languages. On the front, right below the brand name, it carried inverted photographs of the guests stuck by a yellow thunderbolt behind a red circle. I read the microscopic letters on the folded and refolded paper insert that came stuck to the can. I read about warfare. The winning strategy.
I shake the can up and down, put the nozzle on, slant the can, fill my lungs to capacity before clipping my nose shut, close my mouth and press the nozzle. A conical cloud of poison hisses out. I do that to all the four corners of my bedroom, below the bed and between the bed and the wall. Before my mouth and nose burst open, I run out, slamming the door behind me. I sit on the cane sofa in the hall and switch on the TV waiting for the time printed on the folded paper. Nose pressed, mouth closed, I enter the locked room and fling open the windows to exchange the toxic air of my bedroom with the vehicle-exhaust air from the street below.
I switch on the light. Dead carcasses lie scattered on the floor. Wreckage of enemy planes. Some live on a little longer and lie in one final camouflage against the mosaic floor. In the morning, when the maid swept the house, the dead bodies crowd the dust-tray like riot victims on a trailer, to later mix up with rotting vegetable waste, be packed, sealed and kept outside the door.
To my surprise, my wife didn’t use the sophisticated weapon I got her. She had her reasons though.
“Why do you have to spray that thing and watch them die a long painful death,” she told me, “the quicker the death, the more painless it is for them.” Not bad, except I loved to watch them flip over and kick their legs in the air. I imagine myself doing the same out of pure ecstasy.
“See how they are laughing their stomach out,” I would say with a cruel look on my face.
She would ignore me or just move some of her facial muscles. Either way, she conveyed she disliked my ideas, as if she had a far sophisticated means of insecticide.
She used her crude methods that she believed were fast, cheaper, effective and painless for the victims. While I watch with horror and revulsion, she tramples cockroaches under her dark blue sandals with bright red tapes. A crunching sound, the bite of a biscuit. A small patch of black blood on the floor. The cockroach wouldn’t seem to have been disturbed at all. When she finishes and looks up at me, I recoil at her baby-like smile.
One day while we were sitting on the bed, she shouted, almost pushing me away, “Look up, it is hanging from the ceiling”. I looked up before giving her a smile of amusement. I discovered she did not know that lizards can walk upside down. “What if it dropped on us?” she said, apprehension thick in her voice. I looked at the mini-dinosaur through the rotating blades of the fan that drew a faint solid circle on the roof and said emotionlessly, “It would be cut into pieces before it drops on us”. She hated me for such filthy ideas as witnessing the creature turn into little slices and get thrown about in the room by the ruthless blades of the fan. The lizard looked down, or rather ‘up’, at us and nonchalantly crawled on the blue ceiling as if it were a weird rope-way car sliding across the azure sky.
As for me, I did not have any problems with the species, probably because their path never crossed mine. It continued to exist mostly inconspicuously, on my bright pink sea green walls, on a different plane of my three-dimensional world. While the creature lessened my burden to some extent by occasionally doing a commendable job of catching those irritatingly poor butterfly look-alikes from near the tube-light, my wife’s discomfort grew steadily. It piled on her. Every now and then she would come complaining and ask me to do something.
Because I loved my wife and she disliked the species, by the mathematical associative principle, my indifference was slowly converted into dislike. However, things would have turned out to be different had the lizard continued to exist in its different plane and not given me confident glances every time I picked up a toiletry from the bathroom shelf.
It had probably grown tired of the kitchen (where it used to spend most of the time, tormenting my wife) and had trespassed into my zone.
Now it would either be perched on the shaving gel can, slapped on the can’s cylindrical body, trying to savour the macho smell of the white froth near the nozzle or be lying sandwiched between razors until I tried to pick them up. That is when it jumped onto my fingers. When it climbed on me, it felt like jelly packed into a spiky hollow rubber tube. Occasionally it would preen itself in the mirror, exactly at the time when I prepared myself for a difficult drag of the razor blade across my chin, stretching its filthy body across my face. It would then walk around on the mirror surface parallel to itself, its swift motion reflecting on the mirror in perfect symmetry. I got sick and tired. The frustration of finding myself at the receiving end of the endless pranks from a lower form of life was getting shameful.
For me, the issue had now gone beyond personal settlement or trivial domestic convenience. It was now time to prove that the human species, though grossly incapable of walking “upside down” on, or rather below, the roof, was still by far superior to lizards.
Her mom had called. She was coming over in the weekend to visit us. My wife was talking loudly in the balcony, animating her expressions. She scraped the wall with her nails and clicked the hollow metal railing of the balcony. She violently pointed her index finger down meaning a right now. Her left hand spoke, while the right was pressed to the right ear, ambushed in her dark flowing mane suffused with sun.
When she came rushing into the hall, I was polishing my shoes. “Abhi, do you know…my mom is coming this weekend!” she was holding the cell phone like a trophy and showed that to me while speaking, as if her mom would jump out of the cell. “Can you believe?” Her parents hadn’t visited us ever since we were married.
I tried to tease her and deliberately looked uninterested. “Yeah, the whole apartment knows,” I said without looking away from the shiny leather in my hand.
“Why, you are not happy?”
“Uh…no. Not like that”
“Whatever…” She said whatever a bit too often. “I am so happy”
She jumped and sprinted away into the kitchen.
“Can you also make me four toasts please,” I called out, while rubbing the shoes with a torn vest of mine. This request was in addition to my usual diet of milk and corn flakes.
The soft vest in my made excellent wiping material. But sadly, as soon as any of my vests developed even a microscopic hole, she promptly converted it into a mop. Over time I had grown used to seeing my favourite – although sometimes a little old – vests leaving the laundry bag and cowering at several corners of the house, ripped apart.
“No. I can’t,” she spat, still angry from my apparent disinterest towards my mom-in-law’s visit.
But that was okay. Almost always her “no” meant even a stronger, more assertive “yes”. Or at least that is what I had come to believe.
As I entered the bathroom, I could hear her hum. Her crooning was chopped along with the potato on the chopping board.
The socket on the wall into which the toaster plug went was almost broken. The solitary switch on the board worked only partly. It didn’t switch off. We had to pull in or out the plug to operate the toaster. Before entering the bathroom, I asked her to be careful with the toaster.
As I carefully dragged the frothy twin blades upwards on my chin in front of the mirror, a terrible unfamiliar cry from the kitchen drowned the sound of water pouring into the bucket. My blood froze. With a thumping heart and a shaking body, I ran out of the bathroom, half naked, burning with searing apprehension. The toaster, I was sure. I picked up the broom stick on my way.
She stood at one corner of the kitchen, pale, trembling and miserable. With that one diaphragm shattering cry, she had exhausted all her words. Her lips opened but only air came out. She looked at the floor with horror-filled eyes. I looked down.
Shards of glass, corn flakes lay strewn around. A white river flowed toward the hall tinged red at places. I saw two red drops falling from her left middle finger that was pressed tightly between her right thumb and index finger. Some distance away, on the floor, the stunned lizard prepared to leap onto the wall. The bread packet was unopened. I understood.
Sometime later, I realized that what I thought to be a stray water drop running down my chin was actually blood oozing out from a razor inflicted cut.
That moment I decided to do something about the solitary lizard at home. But again, she was the problem. She is fine till cockroaches, but any living being bigger than a cockroach drew disproportionate sympathy from her. Several times I had asked her if I can just simply murder the creature in lukewarm (three fourth cold and one fourth hot) blood. She told me that it’s a sin to cause harm to a living beings (as if cockroaches are born dead) unless seriously provoked (two innocent humans oozing blood amid shattered glasses and spilled corn and milk wasn’t serious enough!). I was not going to do any nuisance with the lizard in her presence. There! She left a loophole.
I waited for her absence. That was taking agonizingly long. Till the weekend.
When her mom finally arrived, she rediscovered the joy of shopping with her mother. I was casually asked to come along. Normally I should have because I liked to wait for her endlessly outside trial rooms looking at through the gap under the door her fair feet moving in and out of shoes. I loved to start small talks with stranger husbands who did approximately the same for their trial room wives. Approximate, because I didn’t know how much they loved their evening job. I liked to pick up bracelets for her. Or earrings. I chose her shoes and skirts. She didn’t buy anything I disliked.
But I had other plans that day. She said “okay” and left with her mom in the overcast Sunday morning.
For me, luckily, my victim was back in the bathroom. The time was perfect. My eyes spilled the joy of a farmer whose glue sticks have caught a stork. She was not there to stop me when I was to act out my devilish play with the troublesome element. I quietly went out of the bathroom and returned with the insecticide spray that was lying jobless outside the room for quite some time. I knew the lizard wouldn’t be killed as the spray was meant for flying insects only, though majority of the insects kept on flapping their wings long after I sprayed it on them. I just wanted to give the bastard a smelly lesson that it would remember for the rest of its life.
As the first jet of spray hit it, the lizard instinctively climbed upwards on the wall with an uneasy look on its face. It clearly sensed the danger, but had no idea of what lay in waiting in the disturbed alleys of my vengeful brain. I aimed the spray at it one more time, and kept the nozzle pressed. The jet threw the poison-dust a good 3 feet, and there was no easy escape in the matchbox sized toilet. Its playful black eyes were now discoloured and its motion was shaky. The deadly combination of Cyfluthrin and Isopropanol mixed with liquefied petroleum gas had done its homework. The spidermanly claws failed to keep it plastered to the wall. Within seconds, the gas conquered its anatomy and it staggered on the wall before falling onto the floor in a weird zigzag motion. A Diwali rocket gone awry.
The spray was deadlier on the lizard than I had thought. It rolled in sheer discomfort and pain and veered dangerously close to the Indian style toilet pan. I knew once it fell into the pan, there was absolutely no escape route. I had no intention to kill. I was looking for something to push it away from the pan. It was too late before I could act. One final roll and the lizard fell and slid on the slippery pan into the circular hole of death. Then it disappeared.
An “oh” slipped from under my nose. I felt my facial skin warming up and I suddenly became aware of a faint pain mixing up with my heart beat. I heaved a deep melancholic sigh and lifted the bucket to flush the toilet. Its soon-to-be lifeless body would be washed away with utter indignity into its dark grave. What a terrible climax to the little pranks it played with me!
Just as I tilted the bucket to empty it into the pan, a tiny withered head popped up from the water. The signature of death was clearly plastered on its face. Nevertheless, it tried. It scratched the polished pan frantically in a bid to lift itself up from the water. But it failed, slipping into the water every time.
The cold watery grip of death held it back mercilessly, every time it tried to climb out. The polished ceramic wall cruelly refused to cooperate with the little vacuum pads. Its trachea desperately sucked in water instead of air. It was a desperate struggle to not to let go of life. A hopeless persistence to remain alive. Every time it drowned, part of its life escaped through the tiny bubbles that floated up to the surface and burst into mute air. And the killer was watching the macabre murder scene with an odd concoction of confused horror and cruel self-satisfaction.
I was numb and motionless. And suddenly the pain and desperation of death hit me hard. The sheer helplessness of dying and not being able to do anything about it. That terrible moment when you are half alive and half dead. I thought I should make a last ditch effort to save the moribund creature.
I rushed to the drawing room and pulled out a newspaper from the centre table rack. I rolled it thin and rushed back to the toilet. I dipped the rolled paper into the hole, hoping that the lizard would have some sense left in it to be able to hold on to it. I dipped it again and again. Nothing happened. By now its muscles, long deprived of their vital supplies, had stopped working. Its remarkable agility had given way to a death-like rigidity. It seemed as if it was sedated. As I kept on trying in vain to rescue the dying creature, it went into the water right in front of my eyes one last time and then floated belly-up, motionless. Its last breath escaped neatly packaged in the bubbles, before disintegrating into the site of crime.
I felt terrible. It was so unlikely of me to feel so. For me, lizards did not reach that threshold size when one starts to feel bad. Ants, mosquitoes, flies, and insects – I kill one or more of these almost every day and never feel bad about it. And it’s not necessary that they must be harmful. Ants are largely harmless. But still, I must have reduced them to a paste when they climbed on me unwarranted making me feel as if my skin was crawling over the flesh beneath.
I came out of the toilet heavy with guilt and walked slowly towards the garbage bin. I threw into it the rolled paper, wet and torn at one end. I then walked back into the toilet, hoping for some miracle. The carcass was floating upside down. I do not know why, but for some unexplained reason, I rushed back to the garbage can, pulled the rolled newspaper and went into the bathroom. I was probably insane from my guilt. I poked the dead body hoping that it would spring to life for no apparent reason. The paper roll in the meantime had unwound itself a little and had become thicker. Hidden from my view, the dead body of the lizard was perhaps drowning and floating back again as I kept on poking it.
After I gave up and pulled the paper out, what I witnessed was incredibly creepy. The dead lizard was neatly pasted onto the wet surface of the paper. I shook it off the roll and it fell to the floor, lifeless. With renewed hope, I lightly tapped its bladder region where its tail joined the rest of its body, attempting to push out of its lungs the water it must have swallowed.
The lizard lay on the floor perfectly resembling its five-rupee lifeless counterparts that are sold in village fairs. The bright black eyes had turned into a dead fish’s. Its body was swollen from sucked-in water. As I looked at its corrugated tapered tail that lay bizarrely twisted on the floor, I felt it moving. It probably moved by a micron, or so I thought, desperate see it alive. I pushed it with the paper roll. This time, its claws slowly folded at their joints, as if it were a worn-out machine rolling after a long time. Life was flowing back. Literally from the air into which it had dispersed only a few moments ago.
When I returned after half-an-hour, it had moved only by a couple of inches to reach the corner where the floor kissed the wall. It probably did not want to stay horizontal for long. The vertical plane beckoned. I wanted to do what it did best. Cling to the wall. However, it was not ready for it. Its bladder was swollen and the vacuum pads were dysfunctional. It has bent itself to an “L” shape, with half of its body sticking to the wall and the lower half resting on the ground. Such was its desperation to climb. I was moved.
I came back after an hour to see if it was still there. I looked around the room, but did not see it anywhere. I was afraid it might again have slipped into the pan. I looked there. Nothing was floating. Before I left the room, for a fleeting moment I rested my eyes on the shelf. And there it was! Behind the shaving gel can, peering at me with an unusual glow in its eyes.
Perhaps a glow from another life.