By: Tamizh Ponni VP
The last time Atul listened to Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day” could have easily been 20 years ago. Mirror balls adorning the well-lit fresh Christmas conifer glistened under the moonlight’s graceful intrusion into the living room. Sweden looked majestic with luminous embellishments that easily brought people into the Christmas spirit. From the interactive light installations to candlelights and cakes, the celebratory mood was infectious. Numbers from the carefully curated playlist wafting through the vents of Echo Dot reaffirmed his wife’s good taste in music. It invoked some insipid nostalgia but memories were plain recollections now.
Holidays to him were occasions that demanded his duty-bound attendance. Atul preferred attending these family gatherings to being at the receiving end of a harangue on Indian family values from his in-laws. His anatomic extensions are now wine glasses and beer bottles holding brimful elixirs that supply some spirit to deal with people, especially family. He got used to being everyone’s dearest killjoy. ‘Why participate in the theatre of the absurd when you can be a mute spectator, grab some popcorn and watch all the drama unfold?’
“Hon, are you okay?” Swara burst through the doors. Atul pulled his gaze away from the snow-clad scenery behind the bay window and turned around, oblivious that he was answering after Swara had knocked thrice.
“Hmm?”, he replied.
Mihira was comfortably tucked under a windflower-patterned quilt and watched the mounting tension through her angelic eyes. Her brows knitted tightly together, and her head moved back and forth between her parents. Swara squeezed out the moisturiser and dabbed it on the child’s cheeks. Winter in Sweden that year was cruel. Swara, playing the part of the devoted wife, patiently waited for her husband’s response. She was hoping to clear the air before it festered further only to ruin their 10th anniversary of togetherness due the following week. Each year, after documenting a list of her carefully curated expectations, Swara would expect Atul to surprise her in a way she wanted to be surprised. At this point, not even an effective couples counselling session would save their marriage let alone, a rooftop romantic dinner.
Atul was miffed by the unforeseen accusation. “What do you mean? I am right here.”, he shot back.
“Yeah. Physically at times. Emotionally never.”, Swara complained. The tone of her voice was quick enough to push all the wrong buttons in him.
“So let me get this straight.”, said Atul taking a deep breath, giving into his swelling rage unawares. An eerie smirk possessed his face swiftly hinting that he was waiting to be provoked this way.
“I am supposed to work a nine-to-five job…no..no…a…profession as you’d like to call it thanks to the dreams I’d sacrificed for fat cheques to provide for this family, then put on the game face, pay the bills, plan vacations, be available, be in love, be in sync and never lose my cool come what may? Is that right? Did I get it right?”
Swara gave a blank stare. She needed a couple of seconds to recall and process that unforeseen retort.
“What?… I did NOT say that. What makes you think you’re the only one slogging day and night? Shall we switch roles? Are you ready for that game?… Oh wait..that can’t happen because being around your child makes you uncomfortable!”, she yelled. It felt spontaneous yet premeditated at the same time.
Atul had given up long ago. He just didn’t dare to say it out loud. They had lived together long enough to be oblivious to the transformation of a loving couple into captives of their situations, high school sweethearts-turned-live-in lovers-turned-bitter partners. In addition to that, the unplanned pregnancy hit the final nail in the coffin.
Atul believed what rules were to BDSM were Carrot and Stick policies for the Corporate he slaved for. What irked him the most was witnessing the authorised exploitation of his fellow fancy degree-holding sycophants-products spewed out of genteel institutions. People’s obsession to exercise control over someone all the time, according to him, percolates through all kinds of relationships. Hope, to him, was the most dangerous drug of all; a slow killer. It pushed him to practise Stoicism 5 years ago only to end up becoming an unapologetic Nihilist.
“You think it’s fun to work for those egomaniacs dressed in their..in their crisply ironed Cordones?”. Atul ignored Swara’s open role-reversal challenge and continued… “I am talking about downright menacing creatures confined to their cubicles and plotting each other’s downfall day in and day out. It’s a fucking Animal Fight Night out there. I am losing my mind but I still do it to put food on this table”, he said, pounding the maple desk nearby sending shockwaves into the fish tank it held.
“What….I didn’t..Atul…What’s ..what’s happening?”. Swara fumbled for words. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “If something’s wrong, you know that you can always talk to me. Why can’t we have normal conversations like we used to have?”, she asked. Desperation clouded her eyes.
“As if that’s going to help the both of us”, Atul scoffed. “What do you feel every time you enter this house you call home, Swara? How long do we have to keep up this pretence? Look at us, we are in our thirties and it already feels like a lifetime. Whatever we had between us … It had evolved, failed to survive and now expired. It’s all a matter of time and sacrifice. Are you truly happy? Because I am not. I want to break free but I am suffocated by guilt.”
Swara was breathing fire and brimstone. What hurt her most was the way he kept using air quotes carelessly to prove a point as if their most cherished feelings meant nothing to him. For the first time, she had no clue what to say. She felt as if Atul had composed and rehearsed that script all his life in a way it didn’t give room for a perfect comeback. It made her furious because it made sense.
“You need help. Find yourself a therapist. Is this some sort of stupid mid-life crisis moment? Get your selfish ass to bed when you come to your senses. You are a stuck-up manchild and a selfish prick!”, is all she could say before storming out of the room taking Mihira who was dearly holding on to her Sunflower Rattle.
This was one of those temporary outbursts bound to happen on all special occasions. Swara was okay to play the emotional punch bag as long as she found purpose in raising their gorgeous little mistake; her bundle of happiness. Mihira was her world now and being a Single Mother was the last thing she wanted. She wasn’t ready to get into Double Parenthood too. Dealing with Atul was easier than dealing with her parents and the cultural standards she was expected to live by. Inured to her husband’s indifference, it seemed like a wise decision to keep the family intact till the young one was mature enough to leave the nest, however long that took.
For Atul, the fourth bottle of Tuborg did what it ought to do. That severe purgation was followed by a pleasant feeling. A peculiar relief after an emotional throw-up, so to speak. He’d blame it on the Beer when they’d have a sober conversation later. Ironically, the aftermath of their emotional kickboxing always had Swara playing the role of both the opponent and the cornerman. She would perform the cutman duties of treating her husband’s fresh wounds in their bedroom. The Oxytocin refill after a physical reunion did have temporary effects. Occasional one-night-stands on dating sites didn’t assert Atul’s manliness anymore. Neither did the blue pills or purple films. There was a constant feeling of unknown unseen energy leaving his body in small doses. ‘Is this what soul-draining feels like?’, He wondered.
After a series of burnouts caused by childhood traumas and toxic choices, at one point, the quest for Twin Flames felt absurd. There was no energy left to hunt or get hunted. Crippled by the subsequent emotional miseries their personal choices set off, for Atul and Swara arranged marriage didn’t sound like a bad idea. “I am okay with anything you all decide”, they had consented wearily. Families let out a sigh of relief as their coercion battles came to an end. Probably this is how life would be for two bad eggs entering into matrimony of convenience. Once the endless faith comes to an end upon shattered hopes, the starry-eyed lot learn to eventually shift their priorities towards the practicalities of life. It was no more about the compatibility but it was the imperviousness to matters of contention that counted. As long as they didn’t dig deep or check each other’s phones as much as even have a snoop at the notifications, peace prevailed. Ignorance did bring all the bliss that gave enough tranquillity. A lesson they’d learnt very late in life.
Normalcy would be restored shortly. Wearing the most concocted expression of joy they’d pose for the Christmas Card photoshoot. Perfectly touched-up pics would travel far and wide; reaching friends and relatives in India. After substantiating the happiness and wholeness of their family to the world, life would go on. They’d carry on as a perfect couple leading separate lives under the same roof.
Killing the room lights, Atul slammed his Macbook shut without bothering to save the random Smart Art process diagram he had created that morning. The screen went black, masking the words on 3D shapes that said,
Birth——>Call out each other’s hypocrisies——->Death.
Along with it, under the mild moonshine, glowed a framed wedding photograph carrying a golden inscription at the bottom that read,
“Couple Goals” which roughly translated to
“A known devil is better than an unknown angel” for the two people in the photograph.
Tamizh Ponni VP is an ambivert who loves to express her skills through literature, visual arts and music. She has worked as an IB educator for 7 years and is currently pursuing her M.Tech, PhD integrated course in Data Science. Tamizh sees learning as a never-ending process and with technology integration, it gives her an interesting dimension to knowledge acquisition and skill-building. Her stories were featured in 2 anthology books, “Mia” and “Varna”. Tamizh’s articles, poems and paintings have also been published in many digital journals and educational blogs. Tamizh spends most of her free time painting, reading, writing articles, stories and poems, playing the keyboard and watching documentaries/movies.