The restaurant manager had loosened his tie. He was at the bill counter finalizing accounts for the day. Most of the late shift waiters had retired to the kitchen and were finishing dinner. The head chef had left through the back door five minutes ago because he wanted to get home early.
The restaurant was winding down. A hum of hushed conversations had filled the main hall until fifteen minutes ago, but the three other families that had been eating in there had left, and now only one table was occupied.
Manu and Nivitha were seated across each other under the wall shade of a corner at the only occupied table in the restaurant. A mutually-agreed-upon silence hung in between them and a practiced tension was tangible from their posture.
Manu’s hard gaze was focused on his ice-cream. However, if someone had asked him what flavor it was, he would have had to inspect. Seated across the table from him and causing him increasing agitation was his wife Nivitha. She was expressing her concerns, but he was feeling more insulted every minute. Inside his head, he was stopping his reflex for verbal revenge with his realization that her words only cut because they were stating the undecorated truth.
A fair argument he could pose to her was how her style of bringing his faults to his attention was emotionally violent, but Manu didn’t say a word. He had two reasons to not react.
1.They were at a restaurant and it might lead to drama. 2.Today was their weekly date-night and if he timed his apologies and promises right, there would be sex.
A waiter was pacing near their table with a bill-book in hand. He attempted to catch their attention, but Nivitha ignored him, and Manu didn’t want to invite the waiter’s approach for fear of how Nivitha would construe his action. He felt the heat of her gaze fixed on his averted eyes. She paused, sipped some water and continued talking.
The waiter, done waiting, awkwardly approached them, placed the bill-book on their table and rushed away as quickly as he could.
Moments after the waiter left, without Manu’s participation in any way, Nivitha’s mood suddenly changed.
She was reaching an emotional tipping point. Her lips were about to break into uncontrollable trembles and she wanted to get her frustrations out of her system. She could then pause, let go of all the pain and tears she was holding back, allow Manu to console her, and relax on the ride back home. She felt like she needed to explode in order to remain.
There existed, between the pair, an understanding of what would happen next, this was one of their routines. Manu was a little uncertain about the pacing because some variables were dependent on Nivitha’s “mood” – which was never clear cut, or stable. Nivitha on the other hand was certain about the sequence and speed of everything that would follow. She understood him extremely well.
While he continued to vacantly look away, she pieced together what must be going through his head. She took her purse out of her handbag, checked the bill-book and paid up. She avoided eye-contact with him, as he slowly looked up now to catch her eyes.
She knew that she would be reassured once their eyes met, and she intended to allow him to calm her soon, but she had to make him beg for a while so that he would remember the seriousness of everything she had just told him. She knew that he hadn’t paid any attention to what she had said, because he was caught up with how she had said it. She’d kept going because she knew that he would think about it later when he was alone.
It might take weeks, but she knew that he would eventually come around. He would not confess to her influence, but his actions would silently thank her for bringing him to his own attention.
2 a.m. Manu woke up.
Nivitha was asleep beside him. He could feel her tired breathing on his cheek. When he realized that he was no longer asleep, he noticed a vague discomfort had gripped his chest. He inhaled deeply and closed his eyes in an attempt to undo his awakening, but he couldn’t summon slumber. His head was cluttered with her words, and the fears that they had brought to his attention had manifested as a minor nightmare. Even as the sleepy images decomposed into his unconscious, the feelings they left behind wouldn’t let him fall asleep again.
Slowly, Manu extracted himself from Nivitha’s cuddle. As he placed her arm gently on the bed, he noticed that her brows were knit in worry. Even in her sleep, her troubles were etched on the expressions of her face. She too, was carrying the load from waking life into her dreams. For the first time ever, Manu felt that she used to be more fun. It seemed like she had never let herself go recently. Manu kissed her forehead to assuage the guilt that bolted across his chest. It didn’t help, because a glimpse of clarity came by and he understood that she was this way because of him.
Caught between the nightmare lingering on from slumber and the self-pity that routinely possessed him during the day, Manu fell into the pleasant trap of nostalgia.
As the flashback started, he noted the immense cliche that this moment was. For a second he wondered if he was subconsciously trained into this kind of thinking pattern because of the numerous movies he had watched as a child. With nowhere to proceed from there, that train of humor lost steam and in an instant, he was gripped painfully by a sense of detachment.
He got off the bed and sneaked out of the bedroom. He collapsed into the couch, kicked back, placed his feet on the leg rest and the story of him and Nivitha began to play in his head, frame by frame.
Nivitha and Manu had met in college and fallen in love unconsciously. They had not been aware of it when it happened. Their mutual courting was an affair that neither of them had wanted to think too much about. They had held a common fear. They had both been afraid that their relationship might not last.
Now, they were both afraid of many other things – she was intimidated by the task of being the sole bread winner, he was too scared to face his family and old friends, they wondered if they had enough money saved up, she was worried about what he was doing with his music, they were both putting on weight, beginning to age, and through all this they relied on each other’s presence to power through.
Unlike the love at first sight masala movies they’d grown up on, their romance was gradual and organic. It started out very playfully and it had evolved into something serious. Manu couldn’t put his finger on an incident or period in time when the change had happened. He didn’t know if his inability to place the transition was a good thing or a bad thing, and so he stopped thinking about it.
Later, he’d write a poem about the early days of their romance. He’d describe meeting her as the blooming of a lone flower. He would also delete the poem from his computer because in hindsight it sounded cheesy.
Nivitha suddenly realized that she was almost awake, though her eyes were closed.
She felt around for Manu’s hand, and not able to feel him, opened her eyes. She noticed that light from the living room came in from under the closed bedroom door. He wasn’t sleeping. She checked the time on her phone. It was 2.30 in the morning. He was probably thinking about what she had said earlier in the evening. She couldn’t feel what she felt then with the same intensity now, and couldn’t completely recollect everything that had happened.
Her memory booted from zero.
In the days that they had first met, Nivitha knew Manu as someone driven by a single ambition. He had wanted to be a rock star. In those days, she had been in awe of his drive, vision and clarity, but if she was to be truthful to herself, they had both been pretty naive.
The fact that there was no one similar to what Manu had envisioned for himself, in the entire spectrum of the music industry, had been all the more reason for him to try to strive towards it. He wanted to be the first Tamil rock star. He’d had an incredible and well placed confidence in his song-writing but she had learned quickly that he had other problems with his own ambition.
One of the first things she’d understood about Manu was that if you didn’t remind him often enough, he would start to feel like he didn’t exist. Although he wrote a new song every week, he never went to meet college bands or try to jam with them. He was insecure because he’d never had any vocal training, he was easily intimidated because his guitar skills were rudimentary, and also, he only knew what he had taught himself. He was chronically shy and never performed anywhere or told anyone beyond her and his younger brother Raghu about his songs. He just kept writing one every week, in a notebook full of chords, lyrics and website designs.
She’d tried to push him to expose his talents to a wider audience, she’d tried to convince him that he needed to get out there, but he’d preferred to make low quality demos and put them online on his soundcloud page. He had a couple of hundred followers who seemed to like his songs, but he always cribbed that they were not true fans because they didn’t spread his music enough. He needed to record in a studio, he’d say, and oh, he needed to make a music video too. It would go viral in his opinion, most definitely, and there was never any doubt about that. Nivitha couldn’t fathom his obsession with the internet and she didn’t understand why he would not meet more people and talk to them. He’d preferred to work on his art in seclusion and if she tried to pull him out of his cocoon, he’d snap back deeper into his shell every time she tried.
Reluctantly, she’d given up hope that his very visible talent would amount to anything, and because she had learned to be careful with his ego, she’d kept her analysis of the situation a secret from him – until today evening.
She knew that he realized all this now and he felt sorry for himself. She felt the urge to go and talk to him, to check if he was okay. But before she could force her body to wake up, she caught herself. Unconsciously she started biting her lips, reluctantly she exercised refrain.
She’d learned, over the two years of their marriage that brooding was good for Manu. He needed to sit around and scratch his beard before he did anything. She turned around, silenced her concerns with the iron will of emotional logic and tried to forget about it. Without her knowing why, tears formed in her eyes but soon enough she fell into an un-restful dream.
Manu loosened his lungi and closed his eyes. As he looked back, he realized that Nivitha had been the only one who actually placed faith in his musical talent. Somewhere along the way he had secretly given up on himself.
Initially when they’d both graduated and started to work, the novelty of the whole enterprise inspired his song-writing. He’d broken away from writing sad songs like Karpanai Kadathal that no one seemed to want to listen to, and started writing optimistic songs like Ulagathin Sondhakaran, which received more hits than everything else he’d written prior to that. He deleted all the songs he’d put up before that from his internet accounts and he saved up to record songs in a studio. He seemed to have found a consistency. And then something had happened and he’d stopped writing songs altogether.
Manu looked up at the clock. It was 3.30 and he still didn’t feel sleepy. He stood up, stretched, turned on the television and quickly set the volume to mute. Late night teleshopping ads were on – quacks selling aphrodisiacs, astrologers answering letters, hair oils that claimed to cure baldness, mixers that were also grinders, has-been actors endorsing a ‘World Famous Vaasthusastralogist’ – whatever the fuck that was, he couldn’t pay attention to any of it.
He turned off the tele and sat down again, trapped by his own thoughts.
Three years ago, a couple of years after they had both graduated from college and started working in an IT MNC, Manu and Nivitha decided to let their parents know about their relationship and get married. Neither his parents – a Brahmin teacher and housewife, nor her parents – a Chettiar landlord and housewife, agreed.
He remembered the months that had followed.
His parents had refused to meet Nivitha. They had no intention of letting their son marry a girl who would not pass the caste test and they had no intention of accepting him back into the house if he decided to go against their decision, or that’s what his father said over the phone when Manu first let him know. Manu had been too chicken to go home and talk to them face to face. His mother would secretly call Manu from Raghu’s phone. She’d promise to get him a ‘fair girl’ who would look good in ‘modern dresses’.
Nivitha’s family on the other hand had been informed by their daughter on one of her monthly visits home. They had decided that their only child was being too modern and moved from Trichy to Chennai to live with her – which meant Manu had to move out of the apartment they’d been sharing and pretend like they had not been living together earlier. He’d visit them every weekend for lunch on Sundays. They resented his visits and argued with Nivitha every time she invited him over. When they heard from one of the neighbors that Manu and Nivitha had been living together prior, her father almost had a heart attack, her mother cried non-stop for an entire day and both of them left to Trichy with broken hearts. When they stopped attending her calls, Nivitha cried non-stop for a week and walked around with a dark cloud over her head for a month.
Manu’s parents hopped from the issue of caste to the issues of incompatible horoscopes, the benefits of a vegetarian diet, the superiority of the Brahmin blood, and finished with family disgrace.
Things went on like this for the better part of a year before they’d both decided that it was all too messed up. Manu hated to see Nivitha so depressed. Manu hated talking to his parents. Manu decided that they had to get married. Nivitha didn’t need a lot of convincing.
On August 27th 2012, Manu and Nivitha got married in the presence of their closest friends, at the marriage registrar’s office, in true Kollywood style. They let their parents know by post, took a month off their jobs and disappeared to the backwaters of Kerala for a week.
When they got back, their parents still hadn’t replied, which was, surprisingly, a mild shock. Their house was a mess because they’d left in a hurry. They were extremely low on cash.
The two years that followed were a comfortable time of matrimonial bliss. Their careers became their primary priority. Once it was clear that the new US regulations would make their on-site dreams much harder, they took a bank loan and bought a small house on the ECR. They found neighbors to car-pool to work with. Their cooking and cleaning skills improved. Manu started reading business magazines and applied for a correspondence MBA. Nivitha started to take tuitions for their neighbour’s children on weekends. They feel into a comfortable routine, put on some weight, struggled to maintain a diet and in between all of this, found time to hang-out with their friends every month or so and go out for dinner one night every week without fail.
Manu looked at the clock again. It was 4.30. Manu leaned back into the couch and tried to fall asleep. He couldn’t. Sneaking back into the room to extract his laptop didn’t seem like a smart thing to do. He sighed to himself, crossed his legs and began to unconsciously scratch his beard.
Six months ago, a river of resentment that Manu had dammed away from his consciousness had flooded and broken the bridge of affection that linked him to Nivitha.
Early one Sunday afternoon, on their bed, both of them naked and spent, as she stroked his chest and playfully prodded him for the dreams he had for them, as she anticipated to be flattered and told she was his darling, that he had no desires that were devoid of her, that none of the threads of narrative that sustained his ego left her out, as he told her that he loved her because she truly listened to him, as he began to be less of the man that he usually had to be and opened up to her, one lover to another, the disgusting truth came out in words that he couldn’t control.
He had told her that he felt, maybe, they had rushed into buying a house. It slipped from him that he was cynical about his MBA. The words stammered out, the river flooded, the bridge broke. He started, careful not to hurt her. She stopped stroking his chest. He continued, trying to compensate. She turned away. He went on with nothing to lose, and she sat up and began to bite her lips.
He’d told her that he felt maybe he didn’t want all of this as much as she did. He’d told her that he wondered sometimes what it would have been like if he had given more time to his musical ambitions. He’d told her that he felt like he might have placed her over his dreams.
He’d seen her cry before. He’d seen her upset and angry or sad and in self-pity, but until he told all that, he had never ever seen her break, he had never seen her wail silently, he had never seen her lost so much in epiphany that she forgot to hide her tears from him. He’d immediately regretted it, but had also felt relieved that he’d told her the truth about what he felt, or what he had felt to be the truth at that moment anyway.
She had stood up from the bed, thrown on a night gown and left the room. He’d followed her out, naked. She’d turned on the tele and huddled in a corner of the living room, unwilling to listen to him apologize, bewildered and dazed. She’d thought he wanted all of this as much as she had. She’d thought he’d grown out of his music phase because he had stopped discussing it. She’d never imagined that he would have kept so much from her, that the world he lived in and the world she lived in were not the same.
Things had never really come back to normal since.
The next day she’d told him that he was free to quit his job and purse his music – they had enough saved up at that point for six months at least, she was going to get a promotion soon and if they cut down on a few things, they would be able to sail through. She’d kissed him on his forehead and he’d hugged her tight and promised her that he would accomplish great things. He’d thanked her for understanding him, he’d apologized for not having made things clear to her earlier. She’d smiled and kissed him again, but it was obvious from that moment on that something was completely and irrevocably broken.
Manu checked the time again. It was 6 in the morning. Six months had gone after the day she had told him he was free to quit his job. 3 months had gone by since he’d stopped working. All he had to show was a paunch, a beard, a high internet bill and a pair semen caked socks he’d tossed earlier in the kitchen dustbin.
Nivitha woke up suddenly. She checked the time, it was 6.30. There was no point in going back to sleep and waiting for the alarm to ring at 6.45. She sat-up, stretched and noticed that Manu wasn’t in bed. Her shoulders sunk and her mind wandered back to the conversation at the restaurant.
She’d told him that he had nothing to show for the time he’d been free. She’d told him that he had no reason not to write songs or go out and perform, that he was being a lazy, useless bum and that she’d give him a couple more months and if there was not going to be any progress by then, he’d have to go and find a job again. She’d told him that their savings had almost disappeared completely, that they couldn’t go on forever like this and that she couldn’t wait forever to have a baby. She half-smiled to herself. The baby bit ought to have scared him shitless – she knew he hadn’t thought that far. She sighed, hoped he was in a good mood and went to the living room. The tele was on in mute and a clean shaven Manu was snoring on the couch. He’d probably fallen asleep while watching something. She turned off the tele and went to the bathroom to freshen up.
Manu finished shaving and turned on the tele again. Nivitha would be up soon and he wanted to help her with the morning routine. As he wondered what he should do about with his life, he fell asleep.
He was carrying his guitar and waiting at the Isphani bus stop. It was deserted. He didn’t know why he was waiting there and he didn’t know why it was deserted. He heard footsteps and he turned towards the sound.
His heart was beating really fast. He made sure he tightened his grip on his guitar bag. His jaw clenched. His eyes widened and suddenly he was face to face with a lanky looking stranger.
The stranger was a young man, about his age. Manu didn’t know why, but he thought the stranger was beautiful. The word he was searching for was striking, but he kept thinking ‘beautiful’.
The stranger reached into his pockets and took out a box of Classic Milds and a lighter. The stranger lit a cigarette.
“Are you ready? We’re late.” The stranger twitched an eyebrow questioningly. Manu remembered all of a sudden why he was there with a guitar. He had to go and participate in a singing contest.
“I’m not ready.” As Manu said that, he felt his guitar crumble inside his bag. Blood was thumping in his ears and anxiety snaked and knotted at the bottom of his stomach. The stranger put a hand on his shoulder. He took the guitar bag from Manu and opened it. Inside was the plywood dust of what had been a wonderful instrument. Manu’s most beloved material possession was no more. Except for the head – the tuning knobs, three strings and the lowest four frets were intact.
The stranger took out the remnant of the instrument and gave it to Manu with a significant look. He dropped the guitar bag to the ground and threw his cigarette on it. The bag caught fire.
Manu looked at the stranger, incredulous about the situation he was in and stammered. “I-I- I can’t play wi-w-with just this!”
The stranger took out another cigarette and lit it.
Manu started to scream and stammer. “I-I’ve ne-nev-er played to a-a-a-a cr-crowd. I-I-I’ll suck. I-I h-had o-one shot and I-I-I th-thr-threw it away.”
The stranger looked Manu square in the eye. He took a few steps back and with no warning whatsoever lurched forward. He eyes blazed with fury. His cigarette fell off his lips. He stretched his arms out to his side and bent his knees into himself. He shouted a tribal war cry and his teeth seemed ten times bigger. He was about to ram into Manu and Manu shut his eyes. The tribal cry stopped.
Manu opened his eyes. The stranger was utterly normal again and blowing out rings.
“Did you think you were about to die?” he asked Manu.
“I never meant to kill you. But you felt it didn’t you? Do you know why?”
“You felt it because I knew you would.”
Suddenly a strange sense of optimism surged from the pit of Manu’s stomach. He blinked and he was on stage.
It was a giant stadium. He’d never been on stage before but that didn’t bother him. Everyone alive seemed to be in front of him, their faces almost invisible because of the spotlight that was on him.
In front of him was a microphone. In his hand was the remnant of his guitar. Manu took a step forward and began to sing Kannavu. He began to strum the air and the guitar was audible, but not for long. The minute he started singing the chorus again – the entire world, the whole stadium, all those people he couldn’t see properly and might never know, sang back the words that he had put to paper and set to tune – they sang his words along with him – words that, seconds before, they didn’t know could be put together in that way to mean that thing.
Manu had never been happier in his entire life. Manu had never known that if he sang in front of people, people would sing back to him.
Nivitha woke Manu up.
When Manu woke up, Nivitha was shaking him. He was breathing like a swimmer who had just broken to the surface and wanted nothing more than air. Nivitha looked concerned, edging on worried.
“Are you okay Maan? You screamed in your sleep. When did you shave? The tap was open and the tank was empty. Are you okay?”
Manu didn’t register anything she said. All he could feel was a sense of something in him but beyond him. He’d known that he might one day be able to perform live and people might sing along with him if he was good, but all of a sudden, because of a dream he couldn’t remember anymore, he felt like it was possible right now. At this very moment. He was thankful he had a guitar.
Inside of himself, he grasped for the lingering feeling that was escaping into the ether already. Trying to memorize how it felt, he put it in words in his own head. He never wanted to forget what he felt like right now.
He noticed then that Nivitha’s hands were on his shoulders. She looked like she’d just gotten out of bed. He swallowed and looked her in the eye. Without knowing why or for what, tears rolled down his cheek. Nivitha was shocked. She’d never seen him cry. She sat down on his lap and wiped his tears.
“Why are you crying Maan?” she whispered softly.
“Do you still know that I love you Nivitha?”
She smiled, wiped away his tears once more and playfully slapped him.
“Thoo” she said.
Manu smiled the cocky smile that he hadn’t flashed at her in a long time. He pulled her closer.