Fiction / February 2011 (Issue 13)


The Perfect Poem

by Vineetha Mokkil

When Pablo and Nandita got married, I gave them a leather-bound copy of Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Pablo ripped open the gift-wrapped packet soon as we walked out of the marriage registrar's office into the molten summer noon. "Nice!" he said, smiling through his beard. "Thanks, Tara," Nandita gripped my elbow, teary-eyed. She had been very quiet all morning.

As our wedding party of four (the bride, the groom, Mitra—witness no. 1, me—witness no. 2) sauntered down the street, I remembered Nandita telling me that Pablo's parents had christened him Michael Fernandes in memory of his grandfather, a Goan fisherman who had quadrupled the family fortune by laying the foundation of a thriving export house, a man of vision, a man who saw a business opportunity in the boatloads of silver-scaled fish that sailed towards the Goan shore as the sea glistened in the sun. His company started out by exporting prawns to Europe. In a few years, it spread its tentacles to America and Australia.

When Michael Fernandes senior collapsed at his desk one morning and was silenced by a paralytic stroke, Pablo's father inherited the business, married a girl his family had handpicked from a lineup of eager candidates, named his first-born after the patriarch and ran the company exactly the way his father had. When Pablo turned twenty-three, he would be asked to step in, marry, have children, run the company the way his ancestors had. That was the plan. Till Pablo turned twenty-one, said goodbye to his parents and hopped on a train to Delhi with a letter of acceptance to a Master's programme in English at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

We christened him Pablo within a month of his arrival on campus. His roommate at the college hostel, a spindly Bihari boy called Diptiman who had had a troubled relationship with poetry all his life, had baptised him without intending to do so.

"Sharing a room with him is like living with Pablo," whined Diptiman one afternoon, his voice rising above the cacophony of the college canteen. "He talks about Pablo all the time, quotes Pablo's poetry, dedicates his poems to Pablo...Pablo, Pablo, Pablo! Who the fuck is this Pablo?" Diptiman slammed his fist on the table and sent a glass of water crashing to the floor.

Michael became Pablo that instant. The name stuck to him as we moved on from semester to semester, pocketed our degrees and enrolled for PhD programmes at the same department. Nandita and Pablo had fallen in love in the first year of our MA course. Theirs was a love song the whole campus had hummed. He was a poet, she was a singer. He was a student leader; a man whose charisma could sustain cults. She was soft spoken, the dreamy sort. Fragile, ethereal—Pablo's words of choice to describe his muse. After he fell in love with Nandita, Pablo stopped dedicating his poems to Neruda and offered them to her instead. He wrote her sonnets and couplets; serenaded her with ghazals. He sent her handwritten letters in verse. Nandita and Pablo, Pablo and Nandita—theirs was a love song the whole campus had hummed.

The year we started work on our PhDs, Nandita's parents loomed on the horizon like rain clouds. Her father wanted her to settle down with a Harvard-educated boy, the son of a friend who had an MBA and a six-figure salary, plus the promise of a green card, soon to be minted by the United States government. "Engagement next month, when he flies down to Delhi to visit his parents," her father had shared the news with her at the dinner table like he was reading out the weather report. She realised he was passing on information to her as a courtesy. The two families had already finalised the deal. Her father would have wooed the prospective son-in-law's parents with promises of gold and silver jewelry, a fleet of cars or an apartment in a Delhi high rise, a massive cash infusion into their bank accounts. She wondered what the going rate for daughters was.

"Eat," her mother served her a stuffed parantha, hot off the stove. "You should put on some weight before the wedding...I don't want your in-laws to think we've been starving you," she laughed, waving a spoon in the air.

"We'll fix a date for the marriage when the pandit finds an auspicious time. The stars are not favourable for the next six months," her father said in between bites of a parantha. Nandita left the table without finishing her dinner. She stepped out on to the balcony of her bedroom and dialed Pablo's number. Later, an hour or so after midnight, my phone hummed from under my pillow where I had buried it before falling asleep. I mumbled a drowsy hello. Nandita was crying and her words were muffled by her tears. I listened to her litany of complaints saving my questions for later.

***

Pablo did not believe in permanent possession. And what was marriage but an open declaration of ownership, a legally sanctified title deed to the other? Nandita was in no hurry to marry him either. She swore she had no interest in laying legal claim to his heart and soul. She was perfectly happy to let things be. But her parents were holding the Harvard boy like a gun to her head, using every technique of psychological warfare perfected by generations of Puris to bend her will their way. Home had turned into a torture chamber. She decided to move out.

"To be young is to be rebellious," my father put his stamp of approval on her decision when I told him about Nandita's move.

"But her parents must be upset," Ma sighed, looking up from the pages of the newspaper. She took her glasses off her nose and began to polish them with the pallu of her sari.

"That didn't stop us from getting married, did it?" Baba smiled at Ma, his face softened by the memory. "Your father put you under house arrest when I proposed to you. But you didn't stay home, did you?"

Ma pushed her glasses back on the bridge of her nose and peered at me from behind steel-rimmed frames. Her eyes were almond-shaped, an artist's vision of perfection. I wished I had inherited them instead of my father's beady eyes.

"Don't let us stop you if you want to run away with a boy," Baba laughed. "Let the course of true love run smooth."

"She's not the one we're talking about," Ma rolled her eyes at him. "This is Nandita's story, not your daughter's."

I said goodbye to my squabbling parents, bundled the pages of my dissertation into my bag and headed for Professor Mitra's house. Mitra was my thesis advisor and worst critic. Slave driver, perfectionist, sadistic bastard—I chanted his many names as I neared his gate.

***

"Marriage is a great institution," Mitra smirked. He was browsing through the papers I had handed over to him. Fifty pages worth of late nights and evenings cooped up in the department library, fifty pages of blood and sweat.

"Huh?" I stared at him across the living room. "Why do you say that?" I asked, wondering if I had added a paragraph or two on holy matrimony to my dissertation by mistake.

Mitra looked up from the pages and gave me a smile. The smirk was not a gesture meant to make me feel at ease.

"Pablo says so," Mitra ran his fingers through his salt and pepper hair. "I'm simply quoting our commandant."

Mitra lived alone in his two-room apartment on the university campus. His wife had left him—or he had asked her to leave (the rumours on campus swung both ways) about a year ago. Solitude suited Mitra. He had grown less irritable after his wife's departure, less inclined to rip apart the fragile self-esteem of his graduate students and PhD scholars. His sarcasm had not vanished. Instead, it had acquired a redeeming tinge of irony that leeched the toxicity out of him. Marriage had brought out the worst in him. Divorce had made him a mellow man.

"Pablo is not getting married," I clarified. "Nandita's moved in with him. That's all."

Mitra leaned forward, planted both elbows on his writing desk and rested his chin on his palms. "Yes, he is," Mitra drawled, stressing on every syllable to make sure I understood. "He just called me to share the happy news."

"But he doesn't believe in marriage!" I raised my voice.

"And yet, they are getting married at the registrar's next Monday," Mitra smiled, this time, inspired by genuine amusement. "He wants me to be there. As a witness. Papers need to be signed. His parents would rather shoot themselves than attend this wedding. Nandita's parents have declared her persona non grata. I hear her father said he was inviting a priest home to perform her last rites…But you know that already."

I scowled at him, hating the ring of amusement in his voice. He was talking of Nandita as if she was a character in a movie, her life a trifle, her troubles, laughable.

"You are upset because I heard the news first!" Mitra walked away and disappeared into the kitchen. He reappeared with a bottle of wine and two long-stemmed glasses; the bottle tucked under his arm, the glasses held upright in his hands. He set them down on the table gently. "Have a glass of wine. It's a gift. From a friend who came back from Spain last week. He is a poet who inherited his father's fortune. Lucky bastard. Never done a day's work in his life."

"Are you sure?" I sipped the wine and let it seep in, waiting for the world to slow down and stop spinning like a crazy top. "Are you absolutely, one hundred percent sure Pablo and Nandita are getting married?" I heard my voice filling the vast space that was Mitra's living room. Sunshine streamed in through the windows and danced on the walls, slivers of light crisscrossed the bookshelves and the faded carpet on the floor. The room was a bubble filled with light. The room was a balloon adrift in the air.

"I'm not in my dotage yet," Mitra raised his glass in my direction. "My hearing's fine. Yes, I'm sure I heard him right. Next Monday. At the registrar's."

"He must have changed his mind," I shook my head. "You can never tell, can you?"

"What?" Mitra's bushy eyebrows shot up like question marks.

"People change," I leaned my head against the couch and stared at the ceiling. A patch of paint had peeled off and left a bare spot there like an ugly wound. "The world is full of surprises."

Mitra pried the empty glass out of my hand and refilled it. "I'll drink to that," he said.

***

Baba made me a generous offer. We were looking for a place to throw a party for the newlyweds on the night of the wedding. Even if the marriage ceremony had been marked by the absence of guests, the party's guest list would compensate. Half the town was friends with Pablo; Nandita had a smaller, close-knit group of friends. Everybody was in the mood for celebration. Everybody was ready for music and dancing, booze, bonhomie; a night to toast the happy couple, serenade them, sing them a love song. Baba saved us the trouble of hunting for a venue. The party kicked off on the terrace of my parents' house.

Nandita was quieter than usual that night. I fussed over her, fetching her a plate of food from the buffet, hovering in her vicinity to make sure she finished it. She snuggled down on one of the bean bags scattered on the terrace, cradling the dinner plate on her lap.

"Don't worry," she said, shooing me away. "I'm fine. Tired, but fine."

I had to strain my ears to hear her. Music blared from the speakers we had planted on the four corners of the terrace. The bass made the walls tremble.

"Come, dance with us," I yelled.

"In a while," Nandita's voice floated towards me from the depths of the beanbag. I left her to finish her dinner in peace.

***

Pablo came up to me when I was taking a breather in between dances. I had drunk too many beers and the night had softened into a blur. The music hummed in my ears like the sound of a distant sea, the lyrics were lost on me. Somebody was playing a song from the 70s, a bittersweet tune, something about the moon and a man on a train, both gone for good. I leaned against the railing of the balcony and watched the cars streaming down the street, a trail of tail lights glowing orange in the dark. The moon had disappeared. The sky was a soft, ashen grey. Stars drew strange patterns there.

"I loved your gift," Pablo's voice, rich and gravelly, was a whisper in my ear. He was right next to me, puffing on a cigarette, his arm encircling my waist. The music stopped. A pause, a pair of hands changing the CD, a chorus of requests, laughter. Pablo kissed me on the mouth. "Thanks," he said, flicking a speck of ash off my sleeve. And then he walked away and joined the crowd of dancers at the far end of the terrace as if nothing had happened. I froze. By the time I had collected my wits, the music was playing again, the dancing was in full swing. I jostled my way through the crowd, past the open bar where two of my friends were playing bartenders, past the couples making out on the garden seats, past the cluster of bean bags where Nandita had been resting her tired feet. I walked up to Pablo and tapped him on his shoulder. The music was too loud for him to hear me. Pablo turned around. Nandita grinned at me from behind his back.

"I'm dancing," she said, waving at me like we hadn't seen each other in a really long time. "After this, Pablo is going to read to me from Twenty Love Poems," Nandita swayed to the music, her arm hooked into the crook of Pablo's elbow. "Tonight I can write the saddest lines/Write for example: The night is fractured/And they shiver, blue, those stars, in the distance…" Nandita chanted from memory.

I turned around and walked away from the two of them. The moon slid out from under a cloud drowning the terrace in milky light as if someone had flipped a switch and turned the night into blinding day.

 
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