The weather forecast in the Indian Express had predicted a week of sunshine but on the day that Elisa Thomas was getting married for the third time to the same man, it began to rain.
It had been a cloudless day during the simple civil ceremony at the courthouse in Bandra three days ago. Overcast yesterday, when Elisa had become Ayesha, converting to her husband’s religion. The ceremony had lasted all of twenty minutes and the good Christian girl forgot her new name as soon as she removed the mint green kurta and billowing silk sharara pants with their intricate gold zardozi work embroidered in a little dusty workshop in faraway Lucknow.
Today, at her third wedding at St Thomas Marthoma Syrian Church, the pouring rain obscuring the stained-glass windows made the interiors look dreary and grey.
Elisa Thomas tried to look calm as she stood still in front of the slightly damp and disgruntled priest but all she could think about, as she glanced nervously towards the windows, was the garden party after and whether the rains would cut short the celebrations.
She cut an imposing figure, three inches taller than the groom, her long, brown hair pulled tightly away from her coffee-coloured face in a severe bun, her perpetually arched eyebrows looming over her small, thickly lashed eyes. Today she was clad in a delicate white sari with a red silk one draped over her head that she would change into for the wedding reception.
Her husband, Javed Gazi, a professional photographer, who at thirty-seven still nursed dreams of joining the Indian cricket team as a fast bowler, wore a borrowed black suit and a stoic grimace.
Elisa’s father, Pothen Thomas, or Acha as she called him, sat in the first pew holding on to his Christianity like he was the weary custodian of the last crumbling communion wafer. He had lost one battle when his eldest daughter, Rahel, married a Punjabi banker. And though the chances of Elisa giving him three or four curly-haired grandchildren with names like Ninan and Cherian had always been rather unlikely, having to finally face this grim reality filled him with bleakness.
He turned to his wife, Jincy, a string of orange kanakambaram flowers in her hair, a maroon silk sari tightly wrapped around her overweight frame, dozens of gold rings gleaming on her fingers, and whispered, ‘All the nice Malayali IPS officers we kept inviting over for tea and Marie biscuits, she rejected. And then she had to go and marry this Javed!’
Pothen Thomas’s eyes misted up behind his thick black bifocals as he continued, ‘You tell me, in this India of so many billion peoples, she could not find a boy, okay not Christian or Malayali but at least an Indian boy? Had to find this Muslim refugee from third-rate country Bangladesh!’
Jincy, without moving her eyes from her daughter and her new son-in-law, maintained a tight-lipped smile on her heavily powdered face and whispered, ‘Pothen, mark my words, it will not last even six months!’
Jincy Thomas was wrong – it lasted for nine.
Room no. 10 at the Hotel du Globe et des Quatre-Vents was decorated with an antique bed, a silk bedspread and fresh yellow flowers. The only drawback was that it was so tiny that they had to squeeze past each other to go to the bathroom.
Elisa would usually open the room door and stand outside, in the hotel corridor, till she heard the sound of the toilet flushing, waiting till her husband made the trek back towards the other side of the room. But these inconveniences did not matter because she was in Paris.
Every morning, Javed and Elisa would open maps and notebooks at the pastry shop next door, and over cups of steaming black coffee and buttery croissants they would plan their separate itineraries for the day.
Though it was odd that two people on their honeymoon would choose to spend the entire day apart, Javed only wanted to go to the art galleries and museums, while Elisa wanted to see all the tourist attractions like the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. So they would go off on their independent adventures and meet each other in time for dinner.
There was yet another odd thing about this honeymoon: there was no sex. No wooden headboard banging against the wall; no long brown legs, covered in sweat, being pried apart; no moans filtering through the wafer-thin wallpapered partitions and spilling into room no. 9, disturbing the elderly German couple that Elisa saw sometimes in the corridor.
Javed and Elisa had been dating for eight years, an on-off-on-off relationship like a defective light fixture. As time went by, they began sleeping with friends and sometimes strangers during their off periods, but during their on periods, gradually without quite knowing why, they stopped having sex with each other.
This desolate area of their relationship did not bother Elisa. She had married Javed partly because she had a bond with him and also because she needed to get married before she would inevitably, one weary day, succumb to one of the Malayali boys, a Varghese or a Joseph, it didn’t matter which, that her parents used as battering rams to break her defences down.
Walking down to Pont de l’Alma in the 8th Arrondissement to catch a ferry and see the Notre Dame against the slanting evening sunlight, she felt that this life with Javed was good enough.
Elisa had been on another ferry ride, not so long ago, crossing over from Versova to Madh Island with her older sister Rahel and Luke, her little nephew, holding a picnic basket. Rahel leaned against the rusty iron railing, the salt air turning her blow-dried hair into a frizzy mess, and asked her, ‘Elisa, why are you like this? Don’t you think you should stop slipping in and out of relationships and find the right man?’
Taking a sip from a bottle of Kingfisher beer, Elisa replied, ‘You know, this reminds me of something a man told me just yesterday, “Things have a way of turning up when they want to be found, though they may not always be the things you actually want to find.”’
Rahel, squinting in the sun, said, ‘That’s pretty profound, Eli, he’s a spiritual guru or something?’ And Elisa, the corners of her eyes crinkling up, laughed. ‘No! He was just stoned, Rahel!’
Javed was perhaps the right man, Elisa thought as she took pictures of the Jardin Tino Rossi, wandering through the sculpture garden and surrounding lawns on her way back to the hotel. He needed a lot of space, which meant that she, in return, got the space to do what she wanted as well. There were no restrictions on her, no demands.
And she liked listening to him talk about art and books. Javed had lithographs, and a charcoal sketch by Souza next to his study table. There was a dusty bookshelf in one corner of his bedroom, with slim red volumes filled with poems by Rumi, Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts, a battered book of Ghalib’s poetry. These were not things she had grown up with in her two-bedroom house that always smelled of meen moilee, a watery fish curry that her mother insisted on making five times a week.
Eight days in Paris and they were back in Bombay, enclosed in Javed’s small flat at Yari Road. Elisa went back to working at her father’s real estate firm while Javed spent his days earning his living as a photographer. In the evenings, he would practise his bowling, which inevitably led to a sprained shoulder or an aching back, while she would go off visiting friends or occasionally paint, leaving a series of unfinished canvases stacked in their garage below.
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Javed was a quiet man who, aside from a beer or two on rare occasions, did not like drinking; nor did he smoke or socialize. His only weakness was that he visited numerous psychiatrists, palmists, fortune tellers and faith healers, trying to find anything that might dispel the dark fog that often filled his mind.
It was Elisa who was the gregarious one, with hordes of friends and a bad smoking habit. She would often go dancing till dawn and when she returned, her hair full of smoke, her mouth tasting of wine, and tumbled into bed, he would move over, and turn his back to her, pretending to be asleep.
With time, Javed got quieter and Elisa was out more often. The shadowy nebula of resentment in Javed’s mind seemed to get bigger and bigger till Elisa could feel it when she brushed against him. It would encircle her when she passed him a cup of tea, sit between them during dinner, lie beside them in bed – like an invisible third person in their marriage.
This silent stalemate could have continued indefinitely but it didn’t. That December they travelled to Goa with Elisa’s friends to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Javed, riding a motorbike with Elisa holding on to him, poured half a bottle of Old Port rum down his throat. He told Elisa that he wanted to die and rammed their bike into a passing truck.
Elisa wrenched the handlebars from him, so they ended up falling in a ditch on the side of the road instead. Javed broke his nose, a rib and his right shoulder. Elisa had a scratch on her arm, straw in her hair and dirt stains on her sparkly silver top.
She returned to the hotel, called her sister and said, ‘Rahel, since it’s New Year’s Eve it’s better to start the next year on a good note. You will tell Achan to do the paperwork for me, right?’ And she returned home to live with her Achan and her Amma, in the house that always smelled of meen moilee.