It’s Sunday afternoon and I watch a quarrel of sparrows around my feet, pecking at grains scattered by the local grocer. I perch on my favourite bench under a tree near my house with Dr. Amartya Sen’s book on justice beside me. I had often quoted his works in my lectures. My students knew that the only way to get the usually calm and gentle Prof. Arvind Kulkarni animated was to argue against Dr. Sen’s theories. I chuckle to myself, I have always been passionate about his works. These days new-fangled professors of Economics are using computers in their classrooms to explain concepts, in my days the blackboard and chalk had to do, that and our passion for teaching. I fondly conjure up in my head the faces of some of my favourite students all doing extremely well in their careers now. They meet me every once in a long while at my home and we get nostalgic about our college years. I am getting so woolly-headed now. Why only yesterday I stirred up my Nescafe with a tea-spoon of salt! I am so thankful to have led a healthy life-style. My body, though nothing worth ogling at for decades now, doesn’t bother me much. “Health is wealth, boy!” my father used to proclaim energetically every morning as he exhorted his two sons out of our bed to put on our jogging shoes. He never tasted a drop of liquor in his life and neither have I. Not even when Rohan got married to that plump girl from down the road and I wanted to end it all. Isabgol takes care of my morning movements and the occasional sniffle is handled by Dr. Pradhan’s ministrations.
The rains have departed this year and the second Bombay summer is on us. But my large flat in Dadar is breezy even on the warmest of days and I never feel the boil. I can’t stand air conditioners. I look around and spot Mrs. Pitre on her evening toddle. She avoids looking at me. Ever since her husband was thrown out of the society’s chairmanship for misappropriation of funds the Pitres have been keeping aloof. She could chatter the hind legs off a donkey, that one. Why, two months ago one morning, she had kept me uncomfortably standing in my pyjamas for half an hour listening with feigned politeness to an endless diatribe on how “these accursed homosexuals” should all be sent to America so they could stop “corrupting the youth of India”! My crime had been that I had gone to retrieve my newspaper at the exact same time that she opened her door to retrieve hers. She raved against the Delhi high court judgement reading down the anti-gay law. By seven I was ready to kill that woman; I had not had a word in edgewise for thirty minutes except ‘uh hm’s and ‘ah’s. Finally I pleaded pressing work and escaped. Thankfully I had kept my homosexuality under wraps from everyone in my building. They thought of me as an eccentric professor of Economics who was married to his books. Kailash had to hunt for a place to stay in the middle of the night in 1975 after his neighbours caught him stark naked nuzzling the neck of a sozzled taxi driver on the staircase. What a scandal that was. He died not long after, poor man, after being badly beaten by thugs one night inside a public urinal. I used to warn him against going to such places but he was driven by the fire in his loins. The police registered a case against person or persons unknown and relegated it to dusty shelves in the backroom. I believe that is where the case file is lying till this day. Life, I ruminate, with its many hues. Mine hasn’t been too bad, I reckon. It could have been far worse. It could have been like Madan’s. They took him to Dr. Poduri for electroshock therapy for years. He couldn’t recognize any of us in the end. A length of clothes-line ended his misery, poor man. His wife upped soon after and got married to a fat banker and migrated to the States. His helpless parents passed away shrouded in loneliness and regrets. Dr. Poduri died of AIDS, I recall to my belligerent satisfaction, which he acquired from all those visits to the nubile whores of Kamathipura. His son is now a pilot in the Indian Air Force. And a handsome piece of goods he is too! He is single, I smile to myself, even at his age...
I met Rohan a year after I came back to India from the University of Glasgow armed with a Masters degree in Economics. I had always wanted to be a lecturer in college. This career has suited me admirably. It has proffered an excellent pokey umbrella against any prying busybody of an aunt or neighbour with a perpetual matchmaker’s bent. I was loath to “come out” as the kids nowadays say. I was born in the “closet” and shall remain there. Rohan’s case was different. His parents were wealthy and could afford two cars when most of us didn’t have any. He was five years older than me and a loner. I would spot him in his expensive suits every morning as he drove by to his father’s office. In the evenings he would shut himself up in his room, till we met that is, buried in books. And so it was, in the Asiatic Library one Saturday afternoon long ago, that fate brought us together. I had helped him find a book on Egyptology and I can safely say that Nyankh-Khnum and Khnum-hotep were our match makers! Those two gentlemen served in antiquity under pharaoh Niuserre and were buried together by their families. Their tomb depicts them embracing and kissing nose to nose. On that sultry afternoon so many years ago Rohan was searching for a book on those two ancient officials. I had no idea who they were before that day but when I found the book for him in a forgotten shelf the blurb clearly mentioned homosexuality. I remember glancing through it before handing the book to Rohan. I remember the little quiver of excitement in my loins. I remember our eye contact and the instant knowledge about the deepest recesses in each other’s hearts. I fell in love with him at that moment.
But those were closeted times. No one dreamt of “gay rights”, Stonewall had not happened. The only gay men I had met before Rohan were the ones at Glasgow. And I could never feel at ease with their open display of sexuality and unbridled promiscuity. To me gay love has always been something to be professed in private to the object of one’s affections, being no business of the neighbours or the government.
We met almost every evening after that fateful afternoon, Rohan and I, discussing everything under the sun. We came to love each other deeply and passionately. Yet he was convinced that he had to eventually get married to the girl his father had set his mind on to keep the bloodline moving. “And what about her vagina, Rohan?”, I would rebuke him scathingly. He would shudder and say, “Let’s not talk about sex with a female”. We used to sneak up into all kinds of odd places to satisfy our carnal desires. The top of Rajabai clock tower, for instance, before the watchman locked the door for the night. And through one of the back doors in the Bombay University campus building which happened to be conveniently left open for us to tiptoe in and cavort night after passionate night. Once a year, for two months, his parents went to the US to live with his elder sister. That is when we would cohabitate in his quarters playing ‘house’. I was the wife who would make him tea every morning the way he liked it – black and sweet, having packed off their resident cook and cleaner to his village. It was a pleasant arrangement, one that both us looked forward to all year round. Rohan’s business suffered because we were always together on those two months, on and off bed. Our libidos were at their peaks and we could not get enough of each other’s bodies.
I shift a bit on my bench to ease my back and look down at the sorry bump between my trouser legs – the old dog has been comatose for years now. Time emasculates the best of us. The grains have all been pecked up from the ground and the host of sparrows have deserted me.
This happy state of affairs went on for several years and the sun shone brightly on our forbidden love. But right from the first day I knew, both of us did, that every dawn must be followed by dusk. That ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ will need to be sacrificed over the altar of marriage. Society demanded it of people like Rohan. His father was anxious that his only son settle down and take charge of his business fiefdom. The last few months leading up to his marriage saw a million tantrums thrown by me. I raved and ranted against his decision. He would patiently hold me in his arms and plead, “I shall never leave you Babu you know that.” I locked myself up in my room the day Rohan was to get married and he came home to cajole me to attend the wedding ceremonies. He wiped my tears, dressed me up and dragged me to the reception. I stood around painfully not speaking to anyone, staring at the stage. Bejewelled wife was smiling away to glory glad, I was sure, to have got one as handsome as Rohan, not to mention the collective riches of their families that totalled up to a ludicrously large sum. And Rohan, I could see, was stoically performing his duties. Afterwards on my way home I had bought a bottle of sleeping pills. I had planned to escape into oblivion that night.
The sun’s all but disappeared and I stand up to walk home. I feel a little giddy and get a faint twinge of pain in my chest. Dr. Pradhan had examined my heart just a week ago and found it fit as a fiddle. I am not worried. Heart attack is the best way to go, I reckon. I walk up to my second floor flat and make for the toilet. My bladder isn’t what it used to be. I have to go several times a day now. I could hold it for hours on end in class in those years. The doorbell rings and I have Chumkee standing outside with a broad smile on her face. She touches my feet with her fingers reverentially. “Good evening professor uncle!” she chirps as she makes her way to my kitchen. Her mother has kept my house for me for years. She is old and infirm now and insists that her daughter continues to do so. I had taken charge of her daughter’s education soon after her birth. Her father was a drunkard and had died of cirrhosis of the liver. Chumkee could speak excellent English and I had made sure she never lacked school and college books any time in her life. Twice a day as she comes into my house she touches my feet. In the initial years I was disapproving of her expressions of gratitude but her mother insisted she paid me her respects daily in the traditional way. “I don’t feel I have done anything great by sponsoring Chumkee’s education”, I would remonstrate mildly, “I believe every child has a right to it and a lot more”. Chumkee’s mother refused to accept that I was anything other than a saint for them. Chumkee is 22 now and holds a first class maters degree from the same college I used to teach in. I have advised her to study further and get a Ph.D. in Botany, a subject she adores. I shall arrange for her to get a guide so that her research work can begin, I have assured her. She is only too happy to follow my advice, much to the delight of her mother who could never see the inside of a schoolroom in her life. Chumkee chatters on as she cooks dinner for me. I sit on my wooden rocking chair by the window in the living room, the food smells wafting around my head. I like my life to be predictable. These days I abhor surprises. I look at the framed photograph of Rohan kept atop my box television. He is smiling at me; in the background are the hills of Mussoorie. That picture was taken a year before his marriage.
It was one of the hardest nights of my life, harder than the ones my parents died. The night when I clutched the bottle of sleeping pills, the night when Rohan would go out of their bridal room and drive aimlessly around for hours before knocking softly on the door of my house. I was wide awake and I heard the knock. I tiptoed to the living room, careful not to wake my parents, and let him in. I was still holding the bottle of pills as I pulled him into my room and shut the door. One look at them and he turned white, he snatched them away from me and threw them out of the window.
He confronted me angry and weeping, “You aren’t going anywhere Babu, you hear?!”
I wanted to beat him, the blood rushed to my face. “I’ll do as I damned well please”, I thundered as softly as I could. “You don’t care about me anyways, you’ll be glad I am gone.”
He slapped me at this. The first and last time in his life he had raised his hand on me.
“I love you. I want you by my side always. And I want you to get that into your head before you think of taking those pills.”
“Go get that woman by your side! That woman you got married to a few hours ago.”
“I have a duty towards her Babu.”
“And none towards me?”
“You are my life, she is my responsibility.”
“I am your whore, your side-fling.”
He clapped his palm over my mouth, dragged me silently out of my house and softly clicked shut the door behind us. Bundling me into his car he drove us to Marine Drive. We talked till the crack of dawn. His marriage was to last ten years but would never be consummated. His wife was happy performing the social role and blowing his riches. I think she knew. In the end she got married to someone with a lot more money than Rohan – I don’t blame her one iota; she didn’t deserve the kind of loveless life she was living. Rohan was free at 45. By then his parents had gone but their business empire was flourishing.
Over the next years we came ever closer to each other. We still lived in our own houses, but would spend most of the time in each others. I think his relatives knew exactly what was going on and turned a blind eye. We were invited together to his family ceremonies. Unhappily, both of us were by the side of my mother when she breathed her last and later, my father.
Chumkee finishes her affairs in the kitchen and takes my leave. Memories come trooping in. Every morning I would leave Rohan snoring by my side and put on my jogging shoes. By the time I would be back home and into the shower breakfast would be ready. Sweet black tea with butter paraathaas for Rohan and coffee with dry toast for me. Some of my fondest memories are of us sitting at Marine Drive watching dusk turn into night. As the years passed more people flooded the promenade in the evenings but we were oblivious to their presence. Our favourite spot was over the rocks by Hotel Oberoi. I gazed at the fading horizon, the lights of passing water vessels, the twinkling of stars and revelled at the million pieces of love that Rohan showered on me merely by his presence in my life. He was my mentor, my area of calmness, my eternity. We would sit in companionable silence side by side for hours on end staring at the dark waters. To this day darkness holds a special promise for me. I don’t fear it. The cocoon of Rohan’s love keeps me safe in the darkest of the nights.
On rainy evenings we would sit by the window and watch the rolling grey clouds shower their manna over Mumbai. Rohan loved to hear me hum snatches of love songs. His favourite was one by Lata Mangeshkar from the 1972 Hindi movie, Annadaataa, The Provider of Sustenance. It goes thus,
The dark shadows of the nights burden the heart;
Neither burns a wick of light nor is there a companion;
I fear not even as the lamps die;
The dawn is ever there for you.
More often than not we would dine at the Taj, Rohan gorging on the desserts and I on healthy greens. We grew older and Rohan plumper, I would chide him for eating too much and exercising too less. He would smile at me and say, “All the more of me for you to love my dear”.
Rohan had turned 65 that year and all that day he complained of feeling uneasy. Concerned, I made him lie down in the evening instead of us going down to the Drive. We had kept the lights in the house off since switching off the lights meant that we switched on the night. I had given him a glass of water to drink and had turned towards the window humming his favourite song. He called my name once and was silent forever after that, moving on into the darkness where I couldn’t follow.