On the far end of the lane appears a lanky man who has a grey ponytail that he should have severed considering his situation. He is flanked by two frail cops who do not have any physical contact with him, which is unusual. Anywhere in the great republic, when cops take the accused to court they walk holding hands as though they are in a relationship.
On the other end of the street a swarm of young women in light summer dresses march down the pavement towards the man. They look grave, angry perhaps. They don’t speak to each other or check their phones. They are walking towards the man, who has been accused of molesting a colleague in an elevator.
The air smells of the sea. The ancient squat buildings that flank the lane glow in the morning light.
He has not noticed the mob of girls yet. He is probably distracted by hope. In the past months he has walked down the red pavement several times on his way to seek bail. Every time, the police van parks half a kilometre away because the street is too narrow. Every time, he returns defeated and walks with brisk strides towards the van that would take him back to a basement cell an hour’s drive away, a bare room with no fans or furniture or any object that can assist a man to kill himself well.
His face finally breaks into a smile; he must have seen her. He does not alter his pace. When she reaches him he hugs her, holds her hand and kisses her wrist. ‘I miss you,’ he says.
‘Love you, Pa,’ she says.
He greets the others, who are clearly not as important as his daughter. They are probably her cousins and friends. He hugs some, taps a cheek, ruffles the hair of a girl, who is surprised. They walk into the building, a regular office complex with the Fast Track Court on top. The two cops follow the crowd into the building, cordially smiling at the backs of the young, posh women.
Arya, in the little cafe on the lane, keeps an eye on the mouth of the building where the sudden crowd has vanished. Any time now they would emerge. He is throwing glances through the only window of the cafe.
‘Did you hear what I just said?’ Roops asks.
This is trouble. He has to quickly manage the situation. ‘Yes,’ he says. Bad move. Foolish, in fact.
‘What did I say?’ she asks.
‘Actually, no. I was looking out. This guy is all over the news, you know. Did you see the girls who came to meet him?’
‘It has been ten minutes since they went in. Why are you still looking out?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I’ve been trying to telling you something for three days but you are always in the middle of something, always distracted, always somewhere else.’
He must keep calm and lurk in husband’s silence, which is a declaration of truce. Humour does not work any more. Is there a single wife in the world who finds her husband funny? No. Boyfriends are different. Husbands, they are not funny. He stares into her eyes and smiles in a self-deprecatory way. But she does not stop. ‘Three days I have not been able to hold a conversation with you. Why is it so hard to talk to you? Every time we speak you get that glazed look in your eyes.’
That wound in her tone, it is never a simple, new wound. It is a whole history, the history of all her wounds in her marriage.
All things considered, her assault on his peace is out of proportion. They are on a vacation. It is a beautiful December day in Goa, the air is warm and clear. They were about to head out to the countryside on a rented Harley Davidson, ride down the winding narrow roads towards the Ashwem Beach. They would eat in a French restaurant where actors and cricketers and billionaires come; then they would walk on the wide, hard beach, a stunning unbroken stretch of over eight kilometres that leads to a settlement of acrobats and dancers and yogis and other modern white gypsies. How can she be bitter, how does she have so much capacity to be bitter?
‘Stop whining,’ he says. The moment he says it he knows it’s a mistake. But he does not apologise. For several years both of them have stopped apologising – it’s another step they have taken in the gradual process of ceasing to be lovers. They have let the grouse grow and decay the spaces between them, waiting until the day that, they do not know how, they become a tight couple again.
‘Whining?’ she says.
It is a mystery why people get so annoyed, especially the whiners.
She picks up her purse and leaves the cafe.
She has done this before, and only in beautiful places. In Barcelona. In Paris. In Tuscany. Somewhere on the Himalayas. She just walks away in a huff. What is he supposed to do? Walk behind her until her anger cools? How is he supposed to know where she is and whether she is all right? In Barcelona it was about how the waitress was a racist and he had disputed her analysis. In Paris he wanted a walk in the alleys but she wanted to go to Musée d’Orsay. In Tuscany and the Himalayas, it was, again, about his glazed looked when she was talking.
‘You said the F word,’ says the little girl at his table. Tush is seven years old. She has thick, long, black hair that all the women in her life want to snip for apparent practical reasons that seem dubious to him. They are all jealous of his girl, all of them. He has banned everyone from touching her hair. ‘You said the F word in your mind but it came out and I heard it.’
‘Why do you and Mama keep fighting?’ Tush says while tapping the pancake with her knife.
‘When we are hugging and kissing and chatting you don’t like it, and when we fight you don’t like it.’
‘You should not fight.’
‘The parents of my friends, they never fight.’
‘Everybody fights. They go to beautiful places to fight.’
She grows quiet. ‘Ananya’s parents evaporated.’
‘Ananya’s mother was very busy all the time, all the time at work, doing this and that, and she made Ananya’s father do a lot of things that only women do because men only want to read newspapers and watch cricket and fly drones and do stuff like that. So he got fed up and left.’
‘Who told you all this?’
‘I am not going to leave you. Ever.’
‘Actually I am more worried about Mama leaving me.’
You devious little imp, we never used to fight before you happened. But the fights were never over their girl.
Roops and he have fought over just four or five distinct things, but hundreds of times over those things. She wants him to put something in the attic, he forgets. She wants him to show more interest in furniture and lampshades and other things whose names he does not know – yes, consoles. And how once he had not taken her to the hospital when she had an ankle sprain. And, of course, that glazed look. It’s the same thing. Every time they fight, if she has not walked away in a huff, it would be about the same things.
He developed a trick to counter her. He started giving her tasks to do. That, he was certain, would give her the opportunity to fail, to be an incompetent spouse. He would ask her to buy a bandana from a shop close to her office, or change a T-shirt he had bought there, or withdraw cash from the ATM. It was a brilliant plan, but the problem was he did not have many credible tasks to give her. He could not think of a fraction of the number of things she could assign him. But the few things he asked her to do she failed spectacularly, yet he somehow could not make her suffer as much as she could make him.
What must he do now? He is with a seven-year-old girl and his wife has walked away in a huff.
How did he get stuck here? Why doesn’t he quit? Are men who hold onto their women merely cowards? The most dangerous marriage is one that is not bad enough to end and not happy enough to be healthy. He is in such a marriage. If Roops was always insufferable, or he a terrible man, they could have separated. But they were OK, always OK; they were only moderately painful to each other. She was not insane. He was not disloyal. It appears that she does not wish to leave him citing glazed look, and he does not wish to cite her wifely self-righteousness. It is as though they are afraid the family court judge would start laughing at their reasons for separation or some newspaper feature writer would include them in a hilarious story about the frivolous reasons why marriages break up ‘these days’.
People in disastrous, horrible relationships do not see how lucky they are – they are gifted clarity.
Most days Roops seems to be in love – with him probably. She says things, lovely things. She is a cunning woman. The fact is he was tame and meek in the beginning of their relationship, always the one to make peace, always the one to apologise first, and she has grown accustomed to having her way.
He is bored and dejected. Probably the only man at this very moment in Goa who is sad. All around him is paradise. In the narrow, winding country lanes of Goa, the old world still survives. The smell of the land heals even if you have no wounds. Tall palms arch. Builders try often to redefine those trees as grass so that they can raze them without permission, but the locals always fight back. The distant sound of the sea is another voice of silence. The lies of poetry become truths here. Time really does not pass. If you want to make a Goan walk fast, you have to burn his house. And the people here, except the alcoholics, are in excellent health. Women and children especially.
This will be their last vacation together. When they get back to Mumbai he will tell her he is done with the marriage.
He needs the happy company of women; without it he is lost. He was always this way. The guys were too competitive, too jealous of him, too wary of him. He had high standards for friendship and only lovers were good enough. But a life in which the only friend is the lover was always going to be a precarious life.
The flat above their home in Mumbai is vacant. This is his chance. He would see his daughter every day and he would be a free man once again. Maybe Roops and he can even go out to dinner some nights. Maybe they can even go on vacations staying in separate bedrooms. They might grow to like each other again.
But he cannot bear the thought of Roops with another man, those sick, unfit, hairy, balding, middle-aged management types who do not read novels and carry germs from escort girls. Any of those men grabbing her, and she pretending to enjoy those unspeakable things that they do, he cannot accept. But it is time he makes the move.
He switches his phone off. The whole day he plans to be unreachable to her. Let her learn that he is tough, that there are consequences to treating him poorly, or at least reacting to his mistake in an overblown way. He takes Tush by her hand across the road, into the building where the court is lodged. ‘Let’s see what goes on in a court. We have lots of time.’
In the Fast Track Court of Goa, which is just one gloomy room, a woman in black robes who cannot be surprised sits in a massive chair. ‘Accused,’ she says, as though it is a word that has no meaning. The accused walks to her desk and stands with his hands folded, accused of molesting a younger colleague inside an elevator, an accused in front of his daughter, who sits on the wooden bench and tries not to weep at the sight of her father this way. The prosecution says that the man is a molester; he says he is innocent, he says she had given consent to touch her.
Arya is sure this is the most terrifying thing that can happen to a man – that is, if he is innocent or even sort of innocent. This is worse than death. A deep terror fills him. If he leaves Roops he would be thrown into the world of decadence, which is now more than ever filled with wild, single women. What if one of them sends him to a place like this, to stand like this, a man accused in front of his daughter?
The bail is denied in a minute. The accused man leaves the courtroom with a swarm of girls, friends, reporters and two frail cops. As he enters the lift he tells his daughter, ‘You come with me, sweetheart. We have ten seconds. It’s a slow lift.’ Many people squeeze into the lift. As it often happens even in unremarkable circumstances, there is a dismal silence inside, and there are people who choose to look up and those who look down.
He is on the Harley, his little girl behind him hugging his waist. This is joy. They ride down the country roads, past the large Portuguese homes that are hundreds of years old, with their sunlit porches and high doors that are shut but somehow without the heaviness of any mistrust. From their windows old men and women watch the world go by, their slight stoops making them look more interested than they probably are. They remind him of the Caribbean homes of Gabriel García Márquez’s imagination, with sombre ghosts, aroused men and their disenchanted beauties.
A young Indian woman overtakes him on a sea blue Kinetic Honda. She is riding fast but he manages to stay close and watch her. He feels odd looking at a young woman even as his little daughter is holding him, but he is unable to take his eyes off her long nape and strong back that show ripples of muscle, her slender waist and bare calves. They ride this way through the villages.
What are his chances with a girl like this? Is he too old? Would she have considered him if she knew he was thinking of leaving his wife? But then he has a child. How to hide a little girl with long, beautiful, flowing hair? But after all isn’t fatherhood a sign to her that he is durable, serious and susceptible to domestication?
The Kinetic Honda turns into a village lane and disappears forever. He continues down to the highway and heads south. A forest rises and becomes a country of squat green hills. The trees are rich and robust and there are so many shades of greens and yellows that he is sure some of them have no names at all. A beautiful road snakes through this archipelago of forest hillocks.
‘Faster, faster,’ Tush says. He wants to but does not have the courage to go faster than sixty kilometres an hour with his daughter on the motorcycle. ‘Faster. Just once you touch hundred. Just once.’
He yields because he wants to on a road like this. When the needle touches one hundred she yelps. He is certain the tube is going to explode and they would fall and die, and Roops would go through the day unaware of losing her family. Would she be secretly relieved?
He goes off the highway, down a dirt track and retraces his route to the secret resort that does not advertise. He parks the Harley and they walk down a red mud slope. Soon they enter an affluent colony of huts that stand on the hard mud banks of a narrow river. The guests of the resort are swimming in the moss green waters. Some are in canoes. Arya and Tush walk down a bank to the river’s end where it meets the short beach.
At a distance he sees a middle-aged white couple stop their walk. They are having a heated exchange. The man flings his wallet on the beach and walks away. The woman, surprisingly, picks it up. She is with a boy who is the same age as Tush. The woman and son walk towards them, looking embarrassed, the boy especially.
Arya has always kept a close watch on unhappy couples on vacation. Every day he notices at least one public fight. Most of them, he guesses, are married. Maybe married people should be banned from beautiful places. They destroy the air.
Tush is playing an incomprehensible game with the boy whose father had flung the wallet. They are dragging a canoe up and down the shallow end of the river.
Arya is sitting on the beach in the sun, staring at the sea. He can spot Roops half a mile away. Even from this distance she is striking. A man observing his wife from afar – why does literature have so little of this moment? A man observing his wife from afar is pure love and rage and exploration and dark thoughts. She has seen him. She too can spot him from great distances. She approaches him with a smile on her face. She is in a blue wrap-around skirt, a sleeveless top and a hat. He does not turn away. They gape at each other but not like fools. She sits beside him and drops her head on his shoulder. A familiar joy fills him. How are they ever going to escape?
Manu Joseph is the author of Serious Men, an award-winning novel that takes a darkly comic look at modern Indian society. ‘I enjoy representing an authentic India and destroying the exoticism around cultures,’ he tells us.