Bubbles was born into the remains of a colonial world, the daughter of a prominent nouveau riche family whose fortune, legend has it, rested upon three coconuts stolen by her illustrious father TN Gopalan, in whose honor was named a narrow street intersecting Mahatma Gandhi Road, an erstwhile canal transformed into the main artery of their little town. Gopalan’s short-lived career as a petty thief was interesting of course, but hardly a conversation point given the universal fact that all wealth is founded upon deceit, trickery and misfortune. Plus, immense wealth had a habit of dusting dry fact with fairy gold and so it came to pass that every so often, at some dinner party, somebody would point out with a beam that three coconuts amounted to a lot indeed for a poor man, while Gopalan gazed inscrutably, but it was imagined humbly, into the near distance.
The man Gopalan chose as husband for his fourth daughter Bubbles, or Bhagwati as she was originally called, was as different from him as could be and yet completely the same. Ram was a college-educated man, a rising diplomat in India’s foreign service, an aristocrat who’d never found an occasion to doubt himself or his worth. He married late at the age of 35, already well on the way to a distinguished career spent in the service of country and ideology. He was a few inches shorter than Gopalan’s own impressive six feet three inches and lacked the fine bone structure that seemed to etch his father-in-law’s every feature in marble. But for such a little man, Gopalan once remarked, Ram was 20 feet tall. Both men possessed an indefinable aura of command, which tricked every eye in every room they entered into believing it beheld the center of the universe. They both spoke in a deep baritone and were possessed of a violent temper that they faithfully bequeathed to their offspring. They were workaholics and absent fathers, blithely condemning their wives to single parenthood with an occasional word of husbandly support thrown in.
Bubbles, too, married late. She was 27 to Ram’s 35 and had begun to dread those inevitable gatherings where people whispered their wonder at her single status. Such a pretty girl, they said, and fast becoming a spinster. With three sisters already married and four more to go, she was on the verge of desperation. To her had come Ram, like some kind of divine benediction early in 1971, and she could hardly believe her luck. She soon came to hate him.
It wasn’t that he was a devastatingly bad husband. Had he beaten her, been a drunk, cheated on her, abused her in public, left her black and blue on the marital bed, her feelings for him would have collapsed into uncomplicated loathing. She could have run home to her parents and screamed out her disgust at this mate they had found for her, much like her eldest sister only three years ago. But to her he was much worse than any of these, for he was what she feared the most and could help the least – an occasional husband.
For that was the greatest similarity between Gopalan and Ram – their increasingly infrequent presence in their marriages. Kalyani, Bubbles’ mother who ruled her children’s lives with a hand of naked steel, had come to detest the half-stranger who’d sired them. She had borne him nine children without complaint but the moment their ninth (and male) child was born, she had considered a distasteful chapter of their marital life closed. From then on it was always clear that on the rare occasion of his visit the master of the house was welcome to every part of the house but the half of the marital bed that the mistress occupied.
Bubbles, as a child, had recognized his desertion and its psychological impact upon her mother. And yet, father to her was a demi-god, tall and handsome and everything wonderful as he strode through their house with his deep voice awakening every slumbering echo, carelessly throwing open doors and windows to let in the world outside. He brought his girls silks from Kanchipuram and China and Benares, sweets from England and Calcutta, fine chikan work from Hyderabad, and everything in the latest fashion with a twinkle in his eye and an irresistible smile on his lips. Years later, she could still remember the excitement that had raged through the house when her elder sisters had received their first English made brassieres. Or when she herself had been handed the most darling pair of shoes with a golden buckle, complete with the most beautiful pair of stockings. She had been the envy of the convent.
Mother had always been a soft voiced tyrant, face filling up with lines year after year, forever pregnant, and always finding fault. Bubbles couldn’t ever remember a kind word from her, not ever, once in her life a word of praise or love, but she didn’t dwell on things like that. She understood early on that in a crowd of nine children, a girl among eight girls, her chance of being the special child was slim. No matter what she did, what honors she won, what heights she attained, all were lost in the constant clamor of her family. The best kind of attention at the house was no attention at all, as the only things picked up for comment were errors for which appropriate punishment was meted out, usually at the end of an ultra flexible, thin cane specially kept for such events on top of her mother’s cupboard.
She was brought up to be respectful, obedient, well behaved and the perfect wife. It didn’t matter that she was headstrong, rebellious, artistic and just enough aware of the world in her time to be dissatisfied with the scope of life offered to her. What was important was that she feared her mother and loved her father, and it leached all courage and left a well-concealed pit in her soul that brimmed with inky, oily frustration for which there was no cure.
Fantasizing of the life that lay ahead, Bubbles had decided early on in her childhood that she would be another kind of parent. She would be the mother that she had wanted for 27 years. And in those glorious dreamscapes, her husband was at once everything her father represented but subtly changed to reflect the unsatisfied needs of her mother, the incompletion of which had left her mother as… less, somehow.
But in married life, in that gracious house in Lutyens’ Delhi, as she settled into the slot prepared for her as Ram’s other half, she began to struggle with an existence that had lost all certainties and held no place for the whimsical dreams of extreme youth. All her life she had lived within the safety of a familial fence that had shielded her zealously from the world outside. But now in the rush of people, of thoughts, travel, the all-consuming lifestyle that was her husband, Bubbles was lost. It wasn’t merely that nothing in her past had ever prepared her for Ram’s life; it was a combination of loneliness engendered by a largely invisible husband, a geography thoroughly alien to her southern eyes, a life abruptly full of silences after an uproarious childhood home, and the disillusionment in adjustment that comes to every married woman.
Meanwhile, Ram was struggling with his marriage as well. Life with Bubbles was proving to be unexpectedly hard. He had built up an image of married life of the kind that he had seen his parents share and he’d asked no more of fate than to allow his own life to follow those lines.
His father had worked a minimum of 14 hours a day at his printing press, not because he needed to but because it challenged him, gave him a reason for living, kept him from becoming old. On the evenings when he finished his work early, or deemed it feasible to leave earlier than usual, he would head for the club and a game of bridge conducted alongside sociable glasses of sherry and heated political debate. Ram’s mother in the meantime managed the estate with aplomb: running a large household, a staff of over a hundred and three small rowdy boys without ever raising her voice or letting it interfere with her husband’s work. To the world at large, the only time his parents’ lives ever intersected was in the privacy of their bedroom and on weekend parties at the club or at someone’s house or function. And of course, once every year when the boys lined up to show their father their report cards from school and both parents would discuss their performance.
Their life had had an even tenor to it, an unstoppable rhythm that had seemed eternal and confident, complete in itself. They had been two separate individuals who had come together to form a unit without losing any part of themselves. They had not been indifferent to each other, far from it – even as children, he and his brothers had seen the absolute sanctity, the completeness of the bond that tied their parents together. They had simply refused to interfere with each other. It had been this that Ram had sought when he married Bubbles; charming, beautiful Bubbles from a suitable background and a fervent desire to see the world. But almost immediately after their marriage he had been aware that he had got it all wrong. They had got it all wrong.
He couldn’t remember when the realization had crept up on him that they each desired something of the other that they found impossible to deliver. He had searched their life together for that feeling of calm inevitability that had infused his parents’ marriage and had failed to find it. He had then tried to consciously achieve it, pushing her as tactfully as he knew towards the prefect model of existence that he knew was possible. For a while it seemed as if he might even have succeeded in his objective, but slowly the cracks had begun to appear and once they showed on the surface he could only helplessly watch them spread.
It began with his insight that he had no idea what she desired of him, he only knew what his own wishes were. His attempts at discussing the problem ended with more confusion as Bubbles floundered to give coherence to her wildly fluctuating thoughts and only succeeding in exasperating her husband with his shallow well of patience and linear thought processes. Their frustration with each other and the sheer impenetrability of each other’s psyche led to a deep unhappiness that slowly built up to a rage that struggled to burst out their bodies every chance it got.
The first time they fought, it was over something significant. Something significant to Bubbles – he forgot what it was. Then (he could only suppose in spite) she was unforgivably rude at a dinner party they had thrown in honor of a young politician, a very important man, a formidable acquaintance with whom Ram was striking up a friendship. He’d completely lost his temper afterwards, had indulged her in a shouting match and turned a blind eye to her hysterics instead of dealing firmly with it as, in hindsight, he knew he should have. He’d stormed out and spent the night at the club, losing at cards and knocking off a few drinks like some melodramatic fool on the stage. They had patched up the next day or perhaps it had been the day after, but it had been a grudging compromise reached by two people who had not known how to set aside their grievances.
Bubbles never forgot that first fight, what he had termed a disagreement to be forgotten at his peremptory command – he’d made her so angry she’d found her hands drawing into claws as she stared at his reasonable face. She’d been upset at his neglecting to inform her until the last minute that he was leaving for Europe for a month with some delegation. She’d tried to explain that she would have appreciated some advance warning, that she hadn’t liked hearing about it from one of the ladies at the club, that it hurt her when he behaved so. But somehow, that explanation had gotten tangled up with her feeling of loneliness and a thousand little things he did around the house that irritated her no end and soon she had found herself screaming like a fishwife as he stood there like a rock, as if it didn’t matter to him at all. She had humiliated herself, losing control like that, she’d even tried to hit him, just to see him move. And he had laughed. Laughed at her.
She’d come down with a migraine the next day and her periods chose that very day to start and when the maid shook her awake from her siesta to dress that evening, she felt she had seldom looked worse. Her ankle-length hair looked a heavy, oily, limp mess, dragging down her back and she could almost feel her neck on the verge of breaking, snap like that. Her eyes were too big for her face and she looked old, older than she had ever been. She dressed her hair high, a la bouffant, and hoped that heavy make up and big hair would detract attention from her horribly wan face, forgetting in her distress that the last time she’d tried that, Ram had called her a clown and threatened to report her to the very next circus he encountered.
Memory returned in time for her to walk into the living room with dread in her heart and smiling her prettiest smile, hoping no one would notice that she looked on the verge of death by explosion, she was so bloated. Then some man said something to her and Bubbles, floating through the evening on painkillers and nerves, had responded wittily or so she thought. The man hadn’t thought so and neither had her husband, standing sphinx-like next to her. She had known she had committed a grave offense the moment the words were out of her mouth and she had waited dumbly for the axe to fall, mouth drying up, throat seizing, stomach clenching, cutting through the numb haze she had drifted upon. In that assumption she did her husband a grave disservice. Well-bred Ram waited till the end of the evening, till the last stubborn guest’s taillights disappeared out their gate before tearing into her.
Exhausted, in pain, struggling with the acid pooling in her stomach from the time she had seen the razor flick of his eyes in front of his Very Important Man, Bubbles was unable to maintain any degree of rationality. A few minutes into their fight she lost all ability to hear, to see, to do anything other than feel. She found herself screaming, crying, dragging deep wrenching breaths of air, all alone. She didn’t even know when he had left, leaving her to her shattered self.
He returned the next day, smelling of expensive smoke and even more expensive alcohol, and she felt nothing as she looked at his face, raspy with stubble. Then he walked past her without saying a word, not one word, and she told herself that she hated him. She chanted that one silent phrase over and over again through the twenty minutes that he spent getting ready for work, through his everyday rituals of the morning: shirt ironed just so, newspaper, breakfast, coffee, tie, briefcase, goodbye. She sat through the entire three-quarter hour of his presence at the breakfast table as quiet as she could be, waiting for him to say something, anything, to her so that she could tell him what she felt, fling it at his face, show him how much she hated him. But the only thing he addressed to her was a careless, hurried farewell as he went out the door.
So she sat there with the words stuck in her throat till the servants finished clearing the table and then walked back to the bedroom where she turned on the radio and just looked out the window at the great trees that lined the beautiful street outside. She didn’t think, she didn’t cry, she didn’t try to write letters of great tragedy to her sisters, she just sat and looked out the window where an organ grinder was slowly making his way up towards her house, his wretched monkey pulled roughly along in his wake.
Later that night Ram came home to pack for his trip and she helped him with that. They didn’t mention the disastrous events of the night before, carefully moving past it to easier ground where they were once again just husband and wife. He didn’t know of the hate that had consumed her only twelve hours ago and she didn’t know of the disgust that had raged through him eighteen hours ago. She told him instead to bring her a bottle of Chanel No. 5 and he asked her to be careful with the blue shirts.
With the late October breeze billowing through the open windows of their room, Bubbles at last let her husband’s warmth soothe her to sleep, his unconscious arm clasping her waist, his deep breaths on her nape, her inert body securely curled against his under the blanket.
[Originally published 2005 at Chowk]