Dweepa wakes up one morning in shock. Who is this stranger in my bed? In my room, sleeping inches away from me?
She edges away from him carefully and gets out of bed. He has a fine line of hair running down his bare back and very narrow shoulders. His beard looks like it could do with some shampoo but his eyelashes, holding down his closed lids, are delicate and damp, as if hes been crying in his sleep.
She goes to the bathroom and locks herself in. Maybe the stranger will be gone when she comes out. When she comes out hes still there. She stands before him without knowing what to say if he suddenly opened his eyes.
Dweepa recalls the time, early in their marriage, when she went on a trip to a wildlife sanctuary with her husband, and their guide pointed out a flock of peacocks settling down on low treetops for the evening. This is the only animal in which the male is more beautiful, shed said, and the guide disagreed. The male of all species is generally more beautiful, hed said. He hadnt been joking; he didnt even smile. It just seemed to be something that he, who spent his life with animals, knew to be a fact. Her husband hadnt heard; hed wandered off somewhere with his binoculars.
Dweepa didnt tell him; it was her secretsomething she knew about her husband that he didnt know himself. He belonged to the more marvellous species.
When Shyam opens his eyes and sees her standing there, aimlessly, she turns away and looks at her own face in the dressing-table mirror. What do you want for breakfast? she asks her reflection and from the man in the bed, the stranger, comes the sleepy-voiced reply. If hed reached out for her in surprise and wonder before answering her question, if hed asked himself aloud what Dweepa was asking herself in silencemy God, who is this person?then she may have given up this game she is tormenting herself with on a Sunday morning.
She goes upstairs to look in on her children. Them she knows. Its to be expected that they turn away from her and groan angrily when she tries to wake them up. She sits on her daughters bed and strokes the small toes poking out from under the blanket. Tia is ten years old, the same age that Dweepa was when she fell in love with Mahatma Gandhi. Last month, in the middle of an argument with her brother, Nitin, over a video game, an argument in which Dweepa and Shyam had taken Nitins side, Tia had gone and stood in the centre of the living room and announced, I know that no one doesnt love me.
Shyam laughed at her grammar while Dweepa had been aghast at the coldness in her daughters voice. She couldnt go across the room and comfort Tia because Tia had learnt something new and adult that day; she would no longer be placated by a mere hug.
Nitinsmall, intelligent, football-obsessed, stirring out of sleep in the other corner of the roomwill manage fine but how will this girl cope with the certainty of not being loved enough, the fundamental scarcity of human warmth? Dweepa sits there holding Tias feet, waiting for her daughter to wake up, and thinking of Mahatma Gandhi.
They were taken out one evening in a single file, in their school uniforms, to see a film about Gandhi. The girls giggled and ate chilli chips noisily. Later in the film, the white-clothed Indian men were beaten with truncheons by English officers. They didnt resist at all; they went down without protest. Dweepa started to cry. She wanted to embrace the small man who laughed and chatted with friends despite the bandage on his head. In the scene after the beating, he was already laughing.
She had discreetly wiped snot on the cuff of her blazer.
Her friend, Saloni, pinched her thigh. Youre crying, she whispered.
No, Im not, said Dweepa bravely in the dark.
Saloni continued pinching her through the film as if in the hope that this would get Dweepa to hold back her tears and save them both from embarrassment.
The next morning at school, Saloni rushed up to Dweepa and said breathlessly, You want to marry Mahatma Gandhi. Her tone was poised between question and fact.
Dweepa didnt find this funny; to laugh would be, in some roundabout way, an acknowledgement. Being in love was a secret of the kind that no one, not even Dweepa herself really, was supposed to know. That afternoon during library hour, as they sat at the round tables reading their Bobbsey Twins books, Dweepa kept glancing at the paintings on the wall. She saw him leaning against bolsters, Jawaharlal Nehru on one side of him and Sardar Patel on the other. They were discussing the future of the nation, all sitting terribly close together; they could almost be touching. In another painting, Gandhi had his arm linked with the handsome Khan Abdul Gaffar Khans. They were walking like that, the small man holding on to the big one. She wished she could walk with them, cling to the Mahatmas other arm.
Later, after breakfast, once everyone is settled into the groove of their weekend, Dweepa camouflages herself behind a newspaper. Something is growing inside her that she doesnt know where to hide. Usually, she could be busy in the kitchen, listening to Shyam, keeping an eye on the maid, trying to address her childrens demandsbe involved in all this at once and still find that her mind is elsewhere, anchored in some stony calm, not consumed by her reality but content in it. But for the last one week an opposite mechanism is at work. Shes become conscious of the smallest twitch on her husbands face. She looks at Tia and Nitins scattered books and toys and feels like weeping. Alone in the bathroom, even the spurt of the warm shower on her shoulders is painful.
She sits there, trying to remember to rustle the newspaper once in a while, and thinks back again to her schooldays. The basketball court one sweaty afternoon. Saloni tripped over the ball and went down sprawling. Dweepa sat by her in the dispensary while Nurse put iodine on her knee and bandaged it up. Dweepa was allowed to remain there over lunchtime. She stroked her friends bare arm. After a while, she demanded that Saloni stroke hers. In that dimly lit dispensary, they discovered the pleasure of gently running their fingernails on the smooth skins of each others inner arms. They did it to each other till they were sleepy with pleasure and Nurse returned from lunch. Then they went back to class and continued to do it behind their desks. Long after Salonis knee had healed, they would, sitting on the school bus or alone together in the chapel, smile and stretch out their arms to each other.
This is an excerpt from the short story The History of Touch which is part of the collection, Difficult Pleasures by Anjum Hasan
From Viking Penguin (April 2012)