|The second time|
Although one of them lived in Kensington and the other in Bayswater, they didn’t know each other. It was that evening, when he’d come out of the Underground and walked down the road glittering with light and rain, and gone back home to speak to his parents on the telephone, that he’d first heard about her. A second marriage! What was marriage, after all? The back of his overcoat was velvety with moisture as it lay drying on the sofa, where it had been roughly put aside. Once, after a couple of meetings, it was agreed that the idea of a second marriage was congenial to both of them, they decided to put it to execution. They had no idea, really, what it was all about; members of both sides of the family became like co-conspirators and decided to keep the fact a secret till they had an inkling as to what the shape and features of a second marriage were. As far as they were concerned, it was still as formless as the rain on Kensington High Street. Last time, the rituals, like some vast fabric whose provenance they knew little about, had woven them into the marriage, without their having to enquire deeply into it; Arun remembered, from long ago, the car that had come to pick him up, his eyes smarting from the smoke from the fire, the web of flowers over everything, including the bed, the stage, even the car. The first marriage had been like a book into which everyone, including they, had been written, melding unconsciously and without resistance into the characters in it that everyone was always supposed to be.
They met at an old pub near Knightsbridge, and ordered two coffees. This time Prajapati, or Brahma, would not preside with wings unfurled from the sky or the dark over their marriage; nor would this wedding be in that ageless lineage that had begun when Shiva had importunately stormed in to marry Parvati. This time the gods would be no more than an invisible presence between their conversation. They sat there, two individuals, rather lonely, both carrying their broken marriages like the rumours of children.
"Sugar?" she said, with the air of one who was conversant with his habits. He was shyer than she was, as if he needed to prove something.
"Two," he said, managing to sound bold and nervous at once. They were like two film directors who had with them, in script, a plan, but nothing else. There was both exhaustion and hope in their eyes and gestures, which the waitress, saying "Thank you!" cheerfully, hadn’t noticed.
"Two?" she said, noting that he was overweight. A gentle affection for him had preceded, in her, any permanent bond. It was as if it would almost not matter if they never saw each other again.
"Are you all right?" said the waitress, coming back after a while.
"Oh we’re fine!" he said, his English accent impeccable. "Maybe you could bring me a few cookies."
The cookies were pale, star-shaped squiggles, or chocolate-dark circles. They had brought a list of invitees with them.
"This is Bodo Jethu," she said, pointing at the name, A. Sarkar, on the top of a piece of paper. "You’ll see him during the ashirbaad at Calcutta."
Withdrawing her finger and looking at a name, she said, "That’s my only mama." He stared at the name she was looking at.
Six years ago, these very people, six years younger, had blessed her at the ashirbaad ceremony before her first marriage. Now they would have to be summoned again, like figures brought to life a second time from a wooden panel where they’d been frozen, resurrected from their armchairs, or old age homes, or holiday resorts, or wherever they happened to be. The embarrassment, the fatigue, of blessing a niece, or a grandniece, or a daughter, a second time! Some of them had developed a few aches and pains, inexorable, since the first time; though all of them were still there. Now they’d be brought back like soldiers who had been disbanded and were caught loitering happily and absently.
But the list of invitees, this time round, was to be a more makeshift affair. It had the air of an impressionistic personal reminiscence; it had been composed, without much advice from elders, haltingly, from memory. "Might as well put him there," and "Don’t you have anyone else on your father’s side of the family?" were the expressions of collaboration and trade heard being made across the coffee cups, smudged with marks from their lips, on the table. Last time, the list of invitees in both cases had been all-encompassing, almost all the people who populated their lives on a long-term basis had come. This time, only a handful were to come; some people had been left out mysteriously, for no good reason; others were the most essential, the kind of people they’d have chosen to take with them to a nuclear-free zone, in case of a war, if they were offered the choice.
In everything they said, there was this air of acceptance, and tentatively, experimentation rather than celebration, of a resolve towards provisionality rather than finality. Since they themselves, rather than tradition, authority, or destiny, were having to author this event, they were experiencing the difficulty that authors have, bringing into existence what didn't exist before. In Arpita, especially, there was deep sadness, not so much because she was attached to her ex-husband, whom she hated, but because she realised the marriage ceremony has only one incarnation, it had no second birth or afterlife, that the fire could not be lit again, consumed and charred as it had been by ghee, nor the garlands re-exchanged, except in memory, where it could be played again and again, like a video tape. Whose wedding was that, then, six years before, and whose wedding was it to be now? There was subtle disjuncture between meaning and reality. In the meanwhile they, while considering the idea of the wedding and the marriage, were having to behave like visitors from a remote planet who were studying the civilisations of this one from a book, and finding their habits increasingly difficult to put to use.
Later, after he’d paid the three pounds and fifty, there was a brief discussion about who should have the right to pay, till it was decided that it was not so much a question of rights as of who had the change. They took a Tube — both of them had taken the day off from the office — to Highgate, and walked down from there to Hampstead Heath. There were two or three preponderant clouds in the sky, which were being gradually pushed beyond their field of vision by a breeze, but there didn’t seem to be any immediate danger of rain. The Heath was largely tourist-less and deserted except for a few devout ramblers and the usual conference of ducks and a few expatiating, unidentifiable birds that, as they walked, had the strangely private and liberated air of tramps. They went to take a look, from the outside, at the old, stately home where they would have their reception in London — they could well afford it as they both earned more than 50,000 pounds a year — after the ashirbaad and reception in Calcutta. They were too well-dressed to be loiterers or intruders, Arun in his usual overcoat, Arpita in her slacks and her dark blue duffel coat. An onlooker, looking at them and looking at the stately home, might have concluded they’d come here to attend a function, only to discover they’d arrived on the wrong day.
"It is lovely, isn’t it?" he said, dazzled by the sunlight mutely reflecting on the wooden door.
"It’s very nice," she said, nodding. The old two-storeyed house with long verandahs where she’d first been married, a family house converted and rented out for such occasions, had set like a sun, while this one had risen like a new sun which had no name, only an indefinable light, in its place. She couldn’t look at it properly. This past month, she couldn’t tell clearly if she was happy because she was at last getting married, or because she was getting married in the light of her imperfections, and others’; that imperfection, as much as accomplishment, would define them when bride and bridegroom would finally meet. This second time round, she’d discovered that to be happy was not so much a self-sufficient, spontaneous emotion, such as you might feel in relation to a dream or a secret, but a way of reacting to the rest of the world; that to be happy this time, she must curb the natural human instinct to look up the sky, with its all-encompassing definition, and gaze towards the immediate ground and horizon, with its lack of shape, or abode, or clear ending.
He was talking about food. He said maybe it would better if they didn’t have an elaborate dinner this time or guests at the reception in the five-star hotel in Calcutta; just some snacks and cocktails.
"You know, things like chicken tikka and kababs," he said.
He meant that the meal should be composed of small, piecemeal, disposable items, which one could consume and move on, in favour of those large repasts which arrested the passage of time and movement. To be left slightly hungry seemed to be apt to the occasion; and when he saw, in his mind’s eye, the singed wedges of the tikka, they seemed well suited for this purpose.
Two months later, she and he took separate intercontinental flights to Calcutta. They arrived at the small shed of an international airport with the air of those who’d arrived on a necessary business trip. She was carrying her laptop with her. Neither had anything to declare, as they walked, on different afternoons, nonchalantly past the incurious customs officials in the way one might walk down the marriage aisle if all the guests on either side were asleep. During the ashirbaad ceremony in her father’s flat near Dum Dum, everyone was a degree less solemn than you might have expected them to be. They’d blessed her once before, but they had enough blessings in store to bless her again, with the same untidy shower of grain and grass. There was an element of play-acting, as they were not adhering to the plan of the ritual, but imitating what they’d done a few years before. But there were also unsettling moments of discovery; some of the faces — those of the bridegroom’s family — were new, while theirs were the same. This collision, this bumping into each other, of strangeness and familiarity in the small flat, made the experience something like rereading a well-known story and finding that some of the characters in it had changed while others had remained who they were. Later, they all relaxed, like actors after the performance, unmindful of their attire and a slight air of dishevelment. There was a gap of silence, in which Arpita existed momentarily as if it were her new home. She remembered how everything had been precisely laid out and premeditated during the last wedding; how she'd hardly had to move of her own volition, but had been carried down, as the ceremony pre-ordains, from her small room in the rented house, down the steps, precariously, in the arms of her male cousins towards the fire, and from there to walk blindly behind her husband seven times. She now saw that house as one she’d never visit again, but which she’d sleepwalked through, without the aid of her hands and feet, half-afloat, as if she were handicapped but had been somehow given the power to move through its spaces in a supranormal way. She said: "Ranga dadu, it’s good to see you looking so well! You’re positively pink!"
"It’s the rum that keeps him so healthy," someone else said.
After two weeks, she was looking at the photographs, and she said: "So many photos! I didn’t realise someone was sneaking around taking so many photos! Who was the photographer?"
"I don’t know," he said. Proudly he added, "I wasn’t there." Naturally he couldn’t be present at his wife-to-be ashirbaad ceremony.
They sat looking at the set of photographs. Everyone in them looked as if they had no desire to go anywhere, and there was a strange unhurriedness about the faces and postures. It was almost as if someone had somehow managed to take the pictures after the event.
Amit Chaudhuri is a scholar, musician and award-winning fiction writer.
He divides his time between Oxford, Cambridge and Calcutta