By Abha Iyengar
Big Daddy always sat on the big reclining chair with its long arms opened, his legs splayed across the arms, wide. He was a short man, but big and sturdy, and somehow his thick, muscular, hairy legs across those long arms seemed just right. At least to my thirteen-year-old eyes, for I had seen him reclined in this position, chewing his tobacco and scratching his chest, which, surprisingly, had no hair, ever since I was a child.
I noticed these things, because I have always been observant since my childhood, and this has stood me in good stead and in bad stead, depending on the situation. Like when I noticed how extra low my aunt would bend to light Big Daddy’s fire, exposing her breasts, which, compared to my mother’s non-existent ones, would attract anyone’s attention, and Big Daddy’s eyes were always drawn there. Aunt did little to hide them, and enjoyed his eyes on them. He would bend forward from his reclining position, chuck her under the chin, and smile, his fat lips widening across his protruding teeth, and his legs would twitch on the arms of the chair. Mother would be busy inside and I somehow knew I should not bring such things to her attention. But I saw all this. I did mention this to Sirish, my friend, who was a year younger than me, but much wiser. He knew about things. He had once sucked the blood out of my foot, when a snake had bitten it, and people said he had saved my life. So he was also my blood brother because, after all, as he said, some of that blood would have been sucked in, even if he had kept spitting it out because of the poison. Maybe some of the poison had also entered his blood, without harming him, but making him less innocent, more aware, at least that’s what I thought.
But I am scurrying forward, as I am known to do. Noticing the interaction between my aunt and Big Daddy was just one thing. There were some other things that I observed. I had also seen my aunt stealing from the kitchen, taking food to her home just across the road that weaved in and out of our huge plantation area. She was my mother’s sister, who had married a rich man, but he had squandered his money on drinks and drugs, and she had come home, asking for shelter from my mother. My mother, out of the largeness of her heart, as large as her beautiful big eyes which perhaps saw nothing, had requested Big Daddy to allow her to stay. Big Daddy had agreed, his eyes straying over my aunt’s face and body. As he said, she was after all, his wife’s sister, and so, she was welcome to stay. So how come I could see things my mother could not? I told you, I was born observant, and maybe I had more of my father, Big Daddy, in me, I always saw more than was visible up front.
So it was that I had begun to tighten the cloth over my breasts to stop them from growing, and ate little to stop myself from becoming a woman, for I knew the danger there. But I could not really do much, for however hard I tried, I had begun to see the way men glanced my way. So I began to stick closer and closer to Sirish, till one day mother told me that I was to be married to Venkaiyah, and would have to stay inside for the next month, in preparation for the wedding. I would have to say goodbye to Sirish, for now I was to be betrothed to another man. So perhaps my parents had also seen the danger of my growing body, or it could be my growing affection for Sirish. Sirish was an orphan child and a labourer; the lowest of the low. As far as my parents were concerned, he was nobody.
Venkaiyah was Big Daddy’s right-hand man. He was tall, dark and silent, with hair that curled down to his shoulders. He wore a full-sleeved tight terycot black shirt and tight black pants that emphasized his crotch, everyday, without fail. Everyone noticed, and everyone consciously ignored it.
Venkaiyah would stand on the right hand side of Big Daddy, and would protect him from anyone. His face was dangerous, his stance was dangerous, and I hated him, for he said nothing when aunt bent low to light Big Daddy’s fire, or rubbed oil on his legs as he reclined on the chair with long arms. Aunt did all this quietly, but her movements spoke volumes, and Venkaiyah would only look around to see that no labourers came for audience with Big Daddy while aunt attended to him, for some propriety had to be kept, even if it was just for appearances’ sake. Like mother for example, never stepping out of the house once aunt had come in to greet her, sat and talked with her for while, walked around the house with her for a while. Mother would say goodbye to aunt at the door, and then go in.
Aunt would walk past Big Daddy and he would stop her as he reclined on the chair, asking about her husband. Venkaiyah would ignore her as she would then do whatever Big Daddy asked her to do. He would ignore me too, though he knew I sat just outside, under the mango tree with Sirish, eating mangoes and throwing their kernels with a vengeance to the side as I watched the goings-on. Seeing the anger in my eyes, Sirish had told me that the chair was responsible for these things. It was called a particular name, something to do with a big Indian city, he had read about it. Sirish was always reading, and I hated that about him, for he would often refuse to climb the trees with me since he was busy reading. Naturally, I had asked him to explain about the chair.
Sirish said, “As men like Big Daddy lie reclining on it, their eyes closed, their legs spread out in front of them, they have dreams.”
I asked him, “What kind of dreams?”
“Dreams of beautiful women massaging them…holding them, kissing them…”
“Big Daddy just dreams, and then aunt appears, and so she does a bit of what he dreams of…”
“But this is…not that city.”
“It does not matter that this is not that city, that this is Sindhanur.” He gave me an exasperated look. “The chair is known by a particular name. It is among the few of them still surviving. It does what it does.”
I flung another question his way. “So how did this chair come here? To our place?”
I could not ask anyone these questions. Mother would not know and Big Daddy I never spoke to, really, all I knew was that he was my father and that I was his only child. Mother had not given him a son. I was just glad he had not married again; many men did that here, just so as to have sons.
Sirish crinkled his dark eyes, ran a hand through his rough, dark hair. Already he was taller than me, and I hated to look up at him when we stood next to each other. I was short, like my father. I think I had a lot in common with my father, but luckily, I had my mother’s dimples, her small, white teeth and red lips, her big, black eyes.
Sirish stood, considering my question. Then he said, “ I do not know. Maybe it belonged to the earlier owners.”
My father had taken over the land and the house when the earlier owners had left. The place had been decrepit and run-down, and my father had worked hard to make it what it now was. He had tilled the land himself, and mother had helped him. I was born very late to them, after many prayers to the gods of fertility worshipped in the many small temples that dotted the area. I had visited one of them with Sirish. He had held my hand a bit too long there, and I had snatched it away then, my heart beating fast. And now, I was to marry Venkaiyah, that forty-something man with the dark, shiny face.
The chair was forgotten as I wondered how to get out of this new situation. I did not want to marry Venkaiyah. I was scared of him, and hated him. Mother had made sure I was inside the house all the time, with two women labourers whose only job was to see that I was cleaned, washed, oiled, and made pretty for the big day. And also make sure that I did not take a step out of the interior of the house. Mother was as usual busy with all the chores of running the big house; she had no time for me. She had given me no explanation why of all men, Venkaiyah was chosen to be my husband. Though the women who talked as they took care of me, let me know enough. They talked about me as if I was not there, as if I did not understand the language.
Said one, pushing thick blunt fingers onto my scalp, massaging it, “Her father, Big Daddy, is grateful for all the things Venkaiyah has done for him.”
Said the second, rubbing coconut oil over my legs, “It seems, without Venkaiyah, he would never have become the big landlord that he now is. Venkaiyah has helped him collect the labour force, done the big deals, arranged for the flow of water from the main river upstream into the land. Oh, how thin her legs are…” She giggled, putting her fat hand over her fatter mouth.
Said one, pulling my hair off my face to make it into a tight bun, “Yes, indeed. Venkaiyah has protected his body from harm. The least that Big Daddy can do for him is to give him his most precious gift, his daughter in marriage.” She glanced again at my body, making a face. “She is thin, not like our nice, big daughters. They would be better for Venkaiyah. He is quite a catch.”
Said the second, pouring the oil onto my thighs now, “He has lots of money, that man. And he is strong, virile.”
They looked at me and shook their heads. “She will break under him.”
I wanted to slap their faces and push them away as their hands kneaded my flesh with oils and scented herbs. Yes, my body glowed, but my heart was becoming black with hatred and dread. At that time, I hated everyone for doing this to me. I was a wild bird and they were going to cage me forever. Even Sirish was hateful, for he, paying heed to my mother’s warnings, had not bothered to visit me even once. He was a coward, after all. But I was not. I would not allow this to happen.
That night, when the two women snored, I leapt up like a cat, released the huge brass bolt that held the door, and sneaked out. Then I ran for my life. As I ran across the porch, I tripped over the chair with long arms. It was empty, quiet; heavy with foreboding. I pushed it away in disgust, not caring whether I made a noise as I did so, for it held my father’s shadow, my father who had pledged me to an ugly, old man for his own ends. I then collected my skirt around me and fled.
Venkaiyah found me; he was not known as my father’s right hand man for nothing. I had been hiding within the temple where Sirish had held my hand too long, thinking that no one would find me there. Come night, I would run again. But Venkaiyah came upon me as I huddled there, and Sirish was with him. Sirish had turned completely treacherous; he had become a traitor. Sirish could not bite the hand that fed him. He was my father’s slave first, a mere labourer, and my friend after that. What did our friendship matter to him in the face of certain death if he did not follow orders? Still I could not excuse his behavior. I did not look at him once even as Venkaiyah carried me in his arms, back to my father.
Big Daddy, as usual, sat on his chair, that hateful chair. His legs splayed out in front of him without any embarrassment, his fingers scratching his chest, he looked at me and growled, “Tonight, you will marry Venkaiyah.” Venkaiyah had deposited me right there at my father’s feet like a stray cat to be kicked away. My father did not bring his feet down but closed his eyes. It was aunt who took me in, happily dragging me in to my mother, who gave me a couple of hard slaps, her big eyes not soft at all, and pushed me into my room.
“Prepare her for tonight,” was all she said to the two women inside, who were sitting like a pair of fat black ducks, holding onto each other. They saw me, and their faces brightened. Now they could turn back to doing what they were best at, gossiping, and kneading my flesh, real hard, for now they had no time and much vengeance towards me in their hearts.
Venkaiyah was a big man, dark, strong, virile. On our wedding night, I stood in front of him, a short and thin young girl of barely thirteen, shivering, not knowing what to expect, but if the women were right, I would be crushed. I hoped he crushed me so hard that all my bones broke and I died that night. I did not want to live anymore. My parents did not care what happened to their one and only daughter. They had married me to this man. Sirish had told me, some time ago, just to impart some information which he was always so full of, that according to the laws of the world, it was illegal for a young girl of less than eighteen to be married. But this land where I lived had only one law, the law of Big Daddy. No one could protest it, least of all his daughter.
All kinds of thoughts raced in my head as I stood there, shaking in front of Venkaiyah. I could not bring myself to look at him, knowing for sure my hate and more than that, my fear, would show.
And he just turned me away from him, led me to the double bed littered with marigold and jasmine flowers, and left the room. He returned with a string cot, some bed sheets and a pillow. I watched petrified from where I lay unmoving, on the bed, not wanting to crush the flowers under me, waiting for I don’t know what to happen.
He made the bed on the string cot, removed the patterned paper silk shirt that he had worn specially for the occasion, already covered with sweat, for it was a hot summer night, threw it onto a bamboo chair, and lay down. Within seconds, he was snoring, while I did not sleep the night through, and… nothing happened.
So it was, night after night, that he left me alone and soon I could sleep peacefully, knowing that I was not to be crushed. He expected me to take care of the house, cook food for him and look after the livestock, which I knew little about, but I had watched my mother and the other women at home, and managed to cope with the tasks soon enough. He was not demanding, and said little to me. Gifts kept coming from home to his house, my house now. I think I was so grateful about not being touched by him, that I was willing to do anything to let this situation continue.
And then one day, Sirish came to my house. Despite myself, despite everything, my heart sang at the sight of him. But he had not come to visit me. He had come to pay his respects to Venkaiyah. I served them tea and biscuits, and then retreated into the inside room, as I was supposed to. They sat outside on the hard, packed mud in front of the house, and talked. I watched from the grills of the window, quietly and unobtrusively. Not once did Sirish look in my direction, but I took him in, his tall lean body, his good looks, the scar that ran on one side of his face, which just added to his attractions. In one year, he had grown taller, handsomer, a young man who could turn any girl’s head. But as they talked, my heart once again grew small, extinguished. He was not there for me. His eyes flicked over Venkaiyah just as Venkaiyah’s eyes flicked over him. They had a connection I had not seen before, and I cursed myself, I who took so much pride in being observant, had not seen this before, why Sirish followed Venkaiyah around like a puppy dog.
I saw Venkaiyah with Sirish in a new light now. And many things fell into place.
Big Daddy had been away, travelling for more than four years, leaving the lands in the hands of Venkaiyah, and my mother. The fields did well, yielding abundance. People who worked the land had full stomachs and smiled more often. They also began to whisper and gossip about me, their smiles turning more than a tiny bit evil. I should have been with child by now. Thank God I was not, but there was no way I could shut the mouths of the many who thought otherwise.
Big Daddy returned, and I had to go pay him a visit, welcome him home. He had one look at me, and then at Venkaiyah, standing dead-faced by his side. As he reclined in his chair and scratched his chest, his eyes hooded over. I knew now what thoughts he was thinking, for I had seen Venkaiyah and Sirish together on this chair while he had been away, playing with each other, uncaring about who saw them. Sirish had sat on Venkaiyah’s lap even while I stood there, head bowed, seeing and not wanting to see. But as I watched them, all I knew was that I hated Sirish, but I also wanted to be his lover, in Venkaiyah’s place, on that chair, reclining, dreaming, feeling, usurping, taking. I knew what Big Daddy’s chair was about, why he always sat there, and why it had outlived other pieces of furniture. It offered dreams.
When my father’s eyes had hooded over, I had thought he was thinking of my aunt, of her breasts, her shapely legs, of her putting warm oil on his thighs, the hot afternoon sun beating down on them, lulling them into lethargy, into a kind of anticipatory torpor. I did not know he was thinking of me, and of how I had remained barren for so long and that it filled him with shame that his daughter could not produce a single child over five years of marriage.
It was a dark night of amavasya. No moon was to be seen, and the skies were overcast. Venkaiyah was out, having been sent on some task by Big Daddy. He said he would return by dawn. I had shut the door, but not bolted it for no one dared near our home, knowing it was Venkaiyah’s place. I was fast asleep and did not hear the footsteps as they approached my home. Or maybe he just walked very quietly, full of stealth.
I woke up with a start, some instinct making me do so. I opened my eyes and saw Big Daddy leaning over my face. His protruding lips were close to mine. He was trying to get on top of me. I began to scream, pushing him away with all my might. This man was not my father, he was some kind of demon unleashed into my world. “Venkaiyah, save me… someone, save me,” I cried out, my shrieks cutting through the night, rapier sharp, shrill. But no one could hear me because the skies opened up just then, lightning cut the sky, and the sound of thunder drowned everything. I struggled against Big Daddy’s weight, this could not be happening to me. “You have to be with child…I have to perform for Venkaiyah…I thought you would delight him…young, raw virgin…” Big Daddy slurped against my cheek. I turned my face away, hot with tears, hot with shame.
And then there was a gurgling sound, as blood from Big Daddy’s neck fell onto my torn blouse, my exposed navel, like red rain. He was hauled up from me and thrown into a corner. And Venkaiyah, dark as the dark night around him, was stabbing him again and again with the small steel sword he carried always slung at his side. Big Daddy lay in his own blood, and I sat up, holding my head in my hands, choking, unable to breathe, unable to speak. In this mute world which Venkaiyah and I occupied, only the skies thundered and the rain poured down to deliver us of our sins. Rivulets of rain merged with the blood and flowed out of the house, a house that would not be the same again.
Venkaiyah had his men. He had his contacts. He had been in charge since Big Daddy had been away. Big Daddy’s body was moved to a faraway corner of the forest that very night and the story went around that he had been out walking alone in the night when a tiger had come and mauled him. Venkaiyah had found him lying there and had the body embalmed and ready for cremation for he did not want the people to see how badly Big Daddy had suffered. Big Daddy had to go in pomp and glory. Nobody questioned the tiger, how it had come, where it was, and whether it should be hunted down. The tiger had come from nowhere and gone away forever.
I had cleaned up the house, got rid of all the blood, burnt the clothes I wore. I wanted to leave the house immediately, but I knew Venkaiyah would not till it was time to do so. Soon, in a matter of weeks, we moved to Big Daddy’s house, and it seemed strange for me to re-enter a home I had considered mine for so many years before my marriage. But now I entered it as the mistress of the house, the Big Lady, taking my mother’s place. Venkaiyah was the king here now, and people were kneeling in front of him. I was Venkaiyah’s wife, and had more pride of place than ever before.
Within a few days, my mother shifted to Venkaiyah’s house, for she could no longer stay with us. She was fine with this for a while. But then she started screaming on amavasya nights, saying she could see a tiger staring at her from the windows, all the house windows. She began to shutter them up at night, but then she complained of the tiger being in her bedroom, his paws and mouth stained with blood, and blood on the bedroom floor. She feared being mauled by the tiger.
Venkaiyah and I visited her. Venkaiyah said, his eyes dark and serious, “Big Mother,” for that was the way he always addressed her, “please be at peace. There is no tiger in your room, as you well know. There is no blood in the house, why would there be? There is no tiger here at all, you know that too. If you like, you can move to the shed outside our home, so that whatever you fear here, no longer visits you. But otherwise, if you want to stay here, and continue to see the tiger, the witch doctor will have to come for you.”
My mother saw the wisdom of his words, for she did not want to be declared mad. She moved to the small, cold shed. This shed was behind the big house where she had once stayed in full finery. Here, she became quiet and did not complain about any tiger, any blood, anything at all. My aunt continued to visit, but now she visited my mother in the cold shed outside, hidden in the shadow of the big house. There was no danger of my aunt putting out her wares for Venkaiya, but I did not allow her to visit me, to raid what was now my kitchen.
Aunt greyed overnight, as did my mother. But my hair was long and black, and my body bronzed with the sun. And I was the landlord’s wife. No one could touch me. I now occupied the very rooms my mother had occupied till now, and Venkaiyah now sat on the chair with the long arms as if he was made for it. He was taller, darker, stronger than Big Daddy, and he was the one sitting on the chair.
What of Sirish? Sirish stood guard over Venkaiyah, his right hand man now. He was his protector in the morning, and his lover at night. That night with my father’s body heaving on top of mine had changed me. I no longer felt shame or disgust about anything. Everything had become physical to me, and if a man’s body had wants, so did a woman’s. I would walk seductively in front of Sirish, because I wanted his attention. His eyes did begin to stray to me, occasionally. I realized that he was not averse to my charms, though of course he could not make this obvious to me or anyone else. Venkaiyah would have him by the throat.
But Venkaiyah, like Big Daddy, had to eventually travel, to go survey the lands, to make deals. He did not take Sirish with him, trusting him, leaving him behind to take care of the estate. Sirish would sit on the floor in the sun, next to the chair with the long arms. He never sat on the chair, and I wondered about it. I wanted to sit on the chair, feel the power of being the owner of the place, dreaming big dreams, the world between my legs. He was just not made of the stuff, I decided.
One hot July afternoon, when Venkaiyah had been gone for six months, and I could see desire creeping into Sirish’s eyes as I walked past, here and there, unconcerned, doing things around the place, I decided to sit on the chair. It was siesta time, most of the house was asleep.
Sirish was sitting next to the chair, as usual, his eyes open, alert. He gasped as I sat on the chair. He watched me as I spread my legs apart on the long arms of the chair. I relaxed myself completely, lifting my skirt up to my knees, spreading my legs some more to get totally comfortable. It was a deep chair and needed some adjusting to, but I was not going to give up. I ignored his wilder gasp as I spread my legs further. The chair literally engulfed me, yet I felt on top of the world. My blouse had tightened on my torso, so I undid a few buttons from below, then a few from the top. I felt myself breathe. The sun was hot, I noticed how flushed my skin was. My eyes closed, ready to dream.
I began to talk to Sirish. “Sirish, would you bring some warm oil for me?”
I heard him get up and go. I opened my eyes and saw him return with a small steel bowl, filled with oil. He sat down cross-legged and placed it next to himself.
I closed my eyes again. “Now, would you massage my feet and legs with the oil? They hurt, you know.”
I felt him rub the oil gently over my ankles, and then he moved up to my calves, and then my thighs. It was not before long that he was exploring the soft flesh between my thighs, his fingers finally moving inside my underwear and massaging my mound. I opened my legs further, closed my eyes some more, feeling his fingers entering, exploring.
“My heart hurts too,” I said, opening my blouse buttons. “I ache and ache.” His hands moved up slowly, stroking my stomach, cupping my breasts gently, fondling them, and a sigh escaped his lips. He held my face in his hands, stroked my lips, but I kept my eyes closed, not wanting to break the dream. His mouth came down on mine hard, his tongue searching. I tasted blood, my lips hot, moist, throbbing.
We had to move the long arms of the chair out of the way to hold each other completely. We had to move the long arms of our history to finally get on with our life, be what we were meant to be, our blood mingling, our search ending in this beginning. On this chair, under the sun, as he moved slowly on top of me, and then with mad, unexplained frenzy, my body oiled and slick under him, the wetness spreading between my legs, I knew I was not dreaming. And if this was a dream, then I would have many such dreams, on this very chair, again and again.
Abha Iyengar is an award winning, internationally published poet, author, essayist and a British Council certified creative writing mentor. Her story, The High Stool, was nominated for the Story South Million Writers Award. She received the Lavanya Sankaran Writing Fellowship for 2009-2010. Her poem-film, Parwaaz, won a Special Jury prize in Patras, Greece. Her short fiction, The Marshlands, was shortlisted in the DNA-Out of Print short story contest 2015. Abha holds creative writing workshops and edits fiction manuscripts. Her published works include Yearnings, Flash Bites, Shrayan, Many Fish to Fry and The Gourd Seller and Other Stories.