I felt her rush forward, behind me. "This might seem like a rude question," she said. I turned like a soldier. No, not at all. Go on, ask me.
Espresso, evil exes, the ending of a Coen Brothers’ movie
“I haven’t written in a while. I mean, I just finished writing a book, so I’m sort of taking a breather.” I asked her if she ever suffered from writers’ block. “I can’t afford it,” she said. “Right now, writing pays the bills. I quit my job at Anna University and scratch out a living with what I write, so I can’t afford blocks.” I ask her if she regrets it, feels the pressure too much. “At some point, I made a conscious decision. Not complaining, I’m doing what I love. I mean, Stuart B. Campbell had to work as a library assistant to support himself.”
You also talk and do workshops, right? “Yes, but I don’t do anything in Chennai these days. There’s too much resistance here. Elsewhere, there’s a more open viewpoint about what an author can or can’t do. Acceptance is hard to come by. Even Jeeth Thayil, you know. My agent, who is also his agent, worked his ass off for that book. It became popular because of the Booker nomination, but it wasn’t an easy sell.”
I nodded sagely and walked in step, lugging my tripod.
For those who came in late (Phantom fans will get that phrase), I met Meena one strange, leafy afternoon in IIT-Madras. Without saying anything profound or even terribly clever, we’d wound up in an ectoplasm of poetry – read part 1 for details
So here we were, chatting up on route to Café Coffee Day. A few exchanges later, we were there.
Back at CCD
By the time we got back, the crowd had doubled. There was no place to sit and the cash counter was a hive of boys and girls – truncated French beards, low jeans, sweat and powerful deodorant. She stood behind me, waiting. A couple of girls approached her and asked the “are you?” question. We shared a look, I left her to do that dance and went back to trying to buy espressos. She wanted black coffee.
When I asked for the coffee, the guy at the counter, a compassionate human being, took the time to explain to me that ‘espresso’ meant a very small quantity of decoction, without milk or sugar. I thanked him for the warning and asked the coffee anyway.
We walked out with the little cups. I felt the exercise of standing at that queue and getting coffee deserved something more than bitter, barely-warm brew – tickets to the first day of a block-buster, at the very least. She laughed, said she wanted the coffee to stay awake. Coffee never helped me stay awake, I told her. “What does it do then?” she asked. It helps me go to bed refreshed, I said. “You must come from a morning coffee family, then. My mother is a tea addict. Tea runs through her veins.”
She takes a sip, sighs. “Sivakasi. I’m not very comfortable going back. The last time I went there was for my wedding. I was all dressed up, excited. But now…” But that was a long time ago, I say. Faux pas. “NooO,” she said, in that typical intonation that dips and then stares you in the face. Then she mellows. “Not really. I was married about three years ago; we separated a year and a half later.” Oh, still fresh, then. “Besides, my sister’s afraid he might make a surprise appearance. It’s his hometown after all.” I didn’t believe he would. That seemed too out of the way after all the public support following her coming-out blog. I told her so. A wry smile, and then, “He was a former Maoist guerrilla,” she challenged.
On the one side, I felt honoured by her candidness. However, a part of me couldn’t help thinking if this was all real. After all, I am from a publication house. Am I meant to take back something? The niggling wasn’t strong. I didn’t try to shake it off. The other argument, that I’d made this delightful connect with someone I’d just met, was more colourful and in tune with the sort of person I was. Am. So yeah, I was having a genuine human experience, so cynics bugger off.
“There’s this guy who flew in all the way from Bangkok just to see me. I’d never met him before. Just to come and meet me, you know. That’s quite a gesture.” The guerrilla thing still had a scary grip on my mind, which kept playing scary violin from Psycho. I then gave her a bit of relationship advice. I, the veteran of exactly one long-term relationship. The best way to ensure one’s safety is to steer clear of any ‘unnatural’ behaviour, I cautioned. For instance, someone flying thousands of miles, burning a hole in his pocket, ‘just to see you’. Such grand gestures tend to cash in their cheques later on, I added for good measure. She conceded with a shrug.
Guerrilla pushed back into the conversation. How do you pick guys like that? I asked in genuine disbelief. Does the abuse start without warning? Split personality? No, she says. “There were some hints, but I seem to fall for the dangerous ones. I know that about myself now, so I’m more careful.”
“There’s this other thing, too. You know, once someone’s in an abusive relationship, they tend to subconsciously look for the abuse again, seek out that danger again.” I told her not everyone is blessed with the kind of awareness that she has, that maybe that’ll keep her away from future danger. “But it’s sub-conscious,” she reasoned sweetly. No, not necessarily, I began, now in earnest protector mode. You see, I’m sure the sub-conscious…she was smiling. Busted.
The espresso, which filled a small part of a small cup, had magically disappeared. There wasn’t all that much, so it probably just evaporated in the few intervening moments of conversation. It was time to go. I said my good-bye, blah-blahed a bit, slung the tripod over my shoulder, walked to the bike. I felt her rush forward, behind me. “This might seem like a rude question,” she said. I turned like a soldier. No, not at all. Go on, ask me.
“That ring you’re wearing, the navratna one. My parents want me to wear it; they believe it’ll keep me safe, away from the…bad ones. I don’t believe in that shit. And, I mean, I can’t imagine that ring works for you, either, if it’s meant to keep ladies away from you,” she said.
I, uhm…rarely, if ever, get compliments for my looks or charm, so yeah, I lapped that one up like her dog would a pack of biscuits soaked for ten minutes in milk. Then I said a ring can keep men away from her only if it measured 5 feet by 4. Seriously, belief forms a major part of this; it seems to work for people who believe in it, I said. My ring was a wedding gift from my grandfather. “Ah,” she said. “Ok.”
A conversation is like a game of Ninja Chicken. There are barbs to avoid, there are walls to jump over, hounds to outwit. I seem to have done well, but there was no time for level two. The sudden pressure of the clock brings a surprising brusqueness in my voice, and a near-impolite haste to my exit. The rather silly “Bye, Meena. I’ll stay in touch” that I threw her way as I rattled past on the bike did somewhat diminish the experience. But only a little. I narrowed my eyes against the wind, as I began to carefully arrange the afternoon on a mental timeline for future embellishment and viewing.
Epilogue: A few kilometres later, I had already written half this blog in my head. I was on the first floor of a clothes store when my phone buzzes. It is in my pocket. I put off taking it out and sliding it open. I know it is her. It is not the triumph of conquest, nor the thrill of getting it right. It wasn’t a vindication; that rests on the bedrock of doubt. No, this was a much simpler, more intimate, joy. Alright, look at it now, she might be waiting, I told myself.
The text said her 14-year old dog had passed away.
(Anand Venkateswaran is fascinated with people and with words. So he writes about people. Even when he's writing about food, film or formaldehyde. Fatten his ego or spit in his punch, at firstname.lastname@example.org)