Fiction: Miss, Dolly, and Hulk
KATHA FICTION CONTEST 2015 SECOND PLACE WINNER
I enter the open gates of the dimly lit park. The predawn darkness conspires with giant trees that stand, branches interlocked, like soccer players plotting strategy before a match. The leaves whisper secrets. When the sunlight cascades through the leaves, the park expands, as if breaking free from an oath of secrecy, revealing trees, grass, flowers, birds, and bumbling humans. I see the regulars, faces I almost smile at when I see them outside the park, forgetting briefly that the familiarity has never translated to friendship. I finish my three laps and sit on a stone bench.
They are back together again—Miss, Dolly and Hulk! I feel the stirrings of an old anger and helplessness. I want to stop them before it is too late.
I have to walk for my health, not to regain it, but to safeguard what’s left of it. “On your toes, from dawn to dusk,” said the chirpy lady doctor (she sounded more like a ballet instructor) during the annual health check-up my elder son, Sid, compelled me to undergo. I walk as much as is humanly possible, so that I don’t have to lie to my sons; with meet-ups on Skype every other night, my face is a dead giveaway for achy joints. Harry takes up where Sid leaves off. Both of them believe I enjoy it when they admonish me like I were their naughty child. I understand they love me, and all that, but I don’t like to converse only about my health, that, too, when I am talking to a computer screen that brings them momentarily across the seas into my living room. I want to know about their work, their weekend getaways, the books they’re reading, and American politics … anything but this dreary topic.
Sometimes they switch to how much they miss my cooking. Only cooking? I change the topic then.
I don’t elicit any useful information from their wives either, who quickly plant the children before the computer screen. My sons have a daughter each—Maya and Riya, aged five and three years, respectively. I long to hold these prattling dolls in my arms. Getting used to their accent and the thought of how much they will have grown in the two years before I see them makes bonding difficult.
Siddharth’s wife is Jay, previously known as Jayanthi on the wedding invite, and Harish’s wife is Lucky, short for Lakshmi. And I still can’t say offhand—Sid and Jay or Harry and Lucky, because I have remained Mrs. Pramila Krishna Rao for the last forty years.
I was married at nineteen to the thirty-one-year-old grandson of my grandmother’s cousin. Krishna, tall, good-looking, and clever was a junior scientist at the National Institute of Computational Science in Bangalore. His parents, as long as they were alive, never let me once forget the marvelous exploits of their prodigiously talented darling. When our sons began school, Krishna rejoiced in their cleverness, saying often, in what he considered jest, that thankfully they took after their father. I completed my arts degree and first pregnancy when I was twenty. Sid, the result of the pregnancy, was cause for celebration, while my second class B.A. was according to Krishna, “not unexpected.”
Krishna was always a busy man: researching, publishing papers, traveling, attending conferences in India and abroad, and steadily climbing the rungs of success. A massive heart attack, days before his fifty-eighth birthday brought it all to an unexpected halt. Not many know the real cause. It had started when Mr. Rai was promoted as head of a prestigious project the year before.
“That inexperienced fool is years younger than me. How can they overlook me like this? Just wait and see what I’m going to do,” he had told me in a rare display of candor.
He applied for sick leave and then while at home, he brooded, grew a beard, and took up gardening. He denounced my cooking and housekeeping as unhealthy and old-fashioned. The boys were spared his caustic tongue; they were in America chasing higher degrees and doctorates.
He had always been like this—a little hedgehog, prickly and irritable. He called me a fool quite frequently, and staunchly believed it. My lips remained sealed, although I seethed within. I may have hinged my future on the frail hope of his discovering, someday, the person I really was. Maybe if he had lived to the ripe old age of ninety, he might have had that opportunity.
That morning while I was getting his coffee ready, I heard a thud from the bathroom. He lay on the cold floor, with the tube of toothpaste and brush in his hand, froth on his face, eyes lifelessly open—the distinguished scientist, the father of my sons and now, my late husband. I did not understand then how being alone could be any different from the years when I had no access to his affection or friendship, but strangely it was.
There are bereft relatives on his side who are surprised to see me now, living my life with a smile. That I can still exist in the absence of such a towering personality is a mystery to them. They don’t understand, on the contrary, that is the reason I continue to exist—a free and complete entity.
I think I have done right by my boys. I began reading all the books their father borrowed for them, right from the time they had begun reading—Noddy, Tintin, Asterix, Enid Blyton, and many others. When I sat them down with their homework, I read their schoolbooks. I swung into a new role when Sid entered high school. I organized notes in files and located books to answer his questions. His father’s explanations were fit only for postdoctoral students, we found to our dismay and secret amusement. It was easier when Harry was in high school. I had all the answers. With a cheerful mother who delivered wholesome meals and doubled up as their secretary, they were lucky boys.
After the hallowed precincts of the IITs embraced them, I quit reading their books. I began to read what I enjoyed. But of course, the credit for their admission into the IITs and then into Stanford and Princeton was claimed by their proud father. Can sons of a renowned scientist be anything but brilliant scholars? I don’t know.
For many years now, my walks in this park have been the high point of my day. Vivekananda Garden is a huge park, one of the many in South Bangalore with magnificent trees as old as fifty years. The walking paths start to fill by 5:30 a.m., and many walkers remain at the park till about 10 a.m. People throng the park again in the evenings. The watchman has to blow his whistle many times when the streetlights come on to drive the people out. I walk, mostly alone, in the mornings and evenings. You glimpse your life here sometimes, especially when you are lonely and observant.
Interesting snatches of conversation drift by and I squirrel them away in my mind. A complete story emerges if I listen to the person again or imagine the rest. I pride myself to be a little like Agatha Christie’s Ms. Marple; no gruesome murders though.
For example when X says, “I returned yesterday,” in answer to his walking companion’s query, I know he’s back from Goa, after attending the wedding of his wife’s cousin—the wedding he had wanted to avoid because he had divorced his wife two years back.
When Y says, “Yes, they are both in good health,” she means her mother and mother-in-law who stay with her and apparently get on like a house on fire. Then there are the knowledgeable young professionals, who carry on their office discussions in these leafy boardrooms.
Some old couples are most amusing. The retired husband explaining (after all these years?) about his past work; the bored wife is throwing longing glances at her friends who are walking ahead. Maybe my husband, too, would have explained to me the statistical-analysis-of-God-knows-what in layman terms, if he had survived the heart attack.
A couple of months ago, my attention was drawn to a woman, possibly in her early thirties, who walked alone in tight designer clothes accentuating her curves. She may have disliked using earphones, because her favorite Hindi film songs played loudly on the pink mobile phone she held, as she walked the lap anticlockwise. We passed each other frequently; my slow three laps and her furiously paced ones. She was fair, with cheeks that turned pink with exertion and had short jet black hair pulled into an untidy pony tail. Her black eyes were always darting, appraising other walkers.
A few days later she was walking with an attractive companion, about her own age, who spoke Hindi as if she had learned it at school and was eager to practice. She was a few inches taller with a wholesome figure. Her good set of white teeth flashed often in ready smiles. She wore smart kurtas over track pants. I’ll name these women before I continue. “Dolly” aptly describes the first woman and her new friend I’ll call “Miss,” because I heard Dolly remark once, pointing to a group of men, “Look, a teacher from your school.”
A few days later the teacher joined them. I had to call him Hulk after Sid and Harry’s favorite superhero character. (Hulk striking brave poses, muscles flexed, stares at me from stickers—the glue still holding strong—on cupboards that once held the dreams and treasures of my little boys.)
It was easy to assume that Hulk was a sports instructor. He was tall, broad, and well-built, in his midthirties with a taste for tight fitting clothes. He walked like he owned the park. He had a gruff voice and spoke in Hindi to Dolly and in Kannada to Miss. I vaguely remember seeing him in the company of other men, walking and talking animatedly before his defection to the new group. The trio walked briskly, counter clockwise, talking nonstop. Miss once spoke of a vegetable curry her husband liked and how she preferred working alone in the kitchen. Hulk replied that he, too, loved to cook and didn’t mind people around him. He glanced over Dolly’s head. His smile caressed Miss’s smiling face like it did after every sentence he uttered.
Maybe it was my imagination working overtime, but too often to be coincidence, Hulk and Miss wore clothes of the same color. Miss wore a darker shade of red on her lips. Of course, on some days when Hulk wasn’t walking with them, Miss’s luminous eyes scanned the walkers, her laughter and talk a tad forced.
A young woman sat beside me on the bench one day. She wore the kind of cotton salwar suit women start to wear at home after the sun and daily wash have softened the original colors to confusing pastels and the fabric to pulpy softness. The kind of material that will go on to wipe cars, bikes, and dusty furniture. She must have set out right after a cooking spell in the kitchen. The kurta was wet on either side with a slightly squeezed look—her handy kitchen towel. She had pleasant features marred by a worried expression and was of medium build with thin waist-length hennaed hair untidily braided. She watched the walkers intently while she fiddled with a scooter key in her right hand. When I asked her if she had finished walking, she told me her mornings were crazy. It was one of those easy confidences one bestows on a friendly stranger, on a journey perhaps, someone you don’t expect to meet or know outside of the conversation ever again.
“Where is the time for such luxuries, aunty? I am awake by 4 a.m., I then cook and serve till 9 a.m., I supervise the maid who sweeps and mops the floor, and I run the clothes in the machine before washing the utensils. With aged in-laws at home and two naughty boys, I’m exhausted by midafternoon, and crash out on the bed for two hours. After teatime with snacks, it’s dinnertime. My husband is a foodie and enjoys variety. Oh! It’s so late,” she said eyeing my wristwatch. Her eyes resumed their anxious search as she hurried away.
It was a surprise one morning to see Hulk walking ahead of me, bent solicitously to a woman. He was talking in Kannada and listening with so much formality my curiosity was piqued. Their pace was slow and I heard words like “cucumbers,” “fees,” and “telephone bills.” I guessed correctly—Mrs. Hulk. Then I saw her face and was taken aback. Clad in a neat grey salwar suit today she was the busy lady who had poured her troubles out to me earlier. Miss and Dolly passed by that very instant from the opposite direction marching straight ahead, their pretty faces betraying no recognition.
Days later, Miss, Dolly, and Hulk resumed their walks, starting earlier, when even little birds were blinking, stretching their wings, waiting for dawn. Clearly Mrs. Hulk couldn’t slip out of her kitchen every day. But why had she accompanied him that one day? Because some neighbor had commented slyly as many are wont to?
“Your husband is very particular about his walks, isn’t he? A fitness freak. We see him every single day, walking briskly—with two pretty women.”
The walks continued; two reds flanked a white; two greens flanked a pink—the pace and pattern firmly set. Hulk and Miss exchanged smiles and banter around Dolly who made their togetherness in public appear harmless and legitimate.
Mrs. Hulk, if we meet again, I’ll tell you this for a fact: while we stay at home and raise fine boys, tending to their studies and health, caring for dependent relatives, knowing nothing about the work and workplace we send our well-fed, well-dressed husbands to, we are preparing ourselves for certain heartbreak if these husbands are the sort that relish this gift of freedom. Mine did: the prestigious institute, his employer—the necessary “Dolly.”
His fortnightly visits to Bombay on research activities at the Institute of Advanced Computing were eagerly anticipated by him. These research visits had begun after Harry was born and continued till his sick leave before the heart attack. His work and thoughts occupied a different world, a world that barely overlapped with the one I inhabited. He contrived to keep them apart. There were few social gatherings in the department he felt obliged to take me—his spouse. But a couple of years before he died we attended a farewell party in a five-star hotel.
Someone there said, “Ma’am, what a pleasure! At last, a glimpse of the woman behind the successful Dr. Krishna Rao. He’s usually alone at parties telling us you’re shy and uninterested in such gatherings.” My husband had discreetly walked away with some colleagues.
Tipsy Dr. Mani had asked, “Mrs. Krishna Rao, when will you build a house in Goa? Your husband just can’t get enough of the sea and sand there.” Someone elbowed him away, apologizing profusely.
That affable enquiry shook my world. My husband responded characteristically with, “Don’t be a fool. What did he mean? How should I know? Mani is a drunkard, and that’s a fact.”
A fool when you question. And also when you don’t.
I have a snow globe on the mantelpiece with a happy looking bride and groom glued in the center. You give it a shake and watch the snowflakes swirling around them. When the last flake settles, the idyllic scene misleads you into thinking that turmoil never happened, or changed nothing if it had. But certainly, so much had altered; not all the swirling flakes found their way back to their old positions. That was how my life was after that day. Hope took a back seat and I began to wear an armor of indifference to disguise my rearranged emotions.
Mrs. Hulk stalked her husband again. One day I heard them arguing. She punctuated the conversation liberally with words like “fed up” and “neglect.” He pledged his honesty on some God and swore over the heads of his sons. His angry wife ordered him to stop unnecessarily inviting the wrath of god on innocent children.
A year after I was widowed, at the wedding reception of Dr. Mani’s daughter, I met Dr. Sylvia D’Cunha. Sylvia was tall and graceful, maybe a few years younger than I was. Her attractive face looked unhappy when she introduced herself. She worked in the Research and Development Department of the Institute of Advanced Computing in Bombay. Her husband was a commercial pilot with an international airline and they were childless by choice. She told me she had fond memories of “brilliant Krishna Sir,” who had been a great guide and support in the field of computational mathematics that she was working on. Something in the way she said those words raised goosebumps on my arms. I sensed his presence near her. Her damp eyes raked my face before she closed them sighing. And she was from Goa.
To remain sane, I had to pull up the drawbridge of dying hopes so that he remained in her world—where he had truly belonged.
I see the trio walk by breezily. Miss, Dolly, and Hulk have completed one lap while I relived a lifetime.
Snow globes are meant to be shaken. Lost flakes are no longer my concern.
I take a deep breath and look away.
An electronics engineer by profession, Jyothi Vinod took a break in 2013, after teaching undergraduates for ten years, to pursue her first love of reading and writing. Her articles have been published in Deccan Herald. Her short stories have been published in Good Housekeeping India, Reading Hour, Femina and Spark.
Katha 2015 Results
“Unsaid” by IQBAL PITTALWALA,
Cherry Valley, California
“Miss, Dolly, and Hulk” by JYOTHI VINOD,
“10-4” by SANJOY GANGULY,
San Jose, California
“Brink ”by TANVI BRUCH,
Los Altos, California
“Courage” by VIVEK SANTHOSH
San Francisco, California
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