Short story — Joy and Sorrow by Dawood Siddiqui
All the labels are yellow-bright like the setting sun. It bothers Akbar. Not the colour but the memories. These labels are everywhere. On the refrigerator. Inside the refrigerator. TV, washing machine, dish washer, plates, cups, shoes, shoe rack, bed, switches – anything that can have a label on it has a label on it. The whole house is plastered with them. One fine day, there was even a label on his forehead. It read Akbar. The label on the refrigerator says, refrigerator (cooling device). On the shoe rack it says shoes and on the shoes it either says mine or not mine.
The wind rattles the window panes. Dark, grey clouds hover above the skies of Derby. He sits up on the edge of the bed, staring at a point just in front of his toes. He doesn’t move, just the occasional blink of an eye. An eerie silence that has crept inside his soul since Noori’s departure haunts the house. Last night he broke three ceramic plates, a cup, and a glass just after he had washed them. It was no vent to any frustration. He did not smash them against the wall. He is too old, too tired for that.
He walks into the kitchen and opens a container with a label on it – Lisinopril. His blood pressure has gone haywire since he had taken the terrible decision of sending the love of his life away. He pops the pill and washes it down with a glass of water.
Akbar is sixty years of age; he has unkempt hair and a bushy beard. The wrinkles on his forehead and under his eyes are like little cracks on an arid piece of land. He stares at her handwriting, the slant in the R’s and her upright T’s. It has been more than a month since she left for the old age home in Belper, a quaint village on the outskirts of Derby. Last month, when she was still home, they had a spat. With nothing left to label, she had wanted to label herself; it set him off like a firecracker. And in that moment, he knew that Noori, his loving wife, had to go. In the beginning, she sometimes forgot if she had taken her pills or if she had locked the door – banal things, it hardly affected them. Heck, they even laughed about it. They could laugh at just about anything. Loud farts and sudden sneezes. Jokes of unknown comedians on TV, the accent of an old Scottish lady living right next to them. But dementia is like cancer; it grows worse with age. Her mind stopped retaining important things. The kettle on the stove, the food in the pan. One day, while she was out for grocery, she forgot her address. Akbar found her in the parking lot, crying like a kid separated from her mom.
She stopped cooking, doing dishes, washing clothes, dusting and wiping tables – all the things she had loved, all the things she considered her duty. Instead, she started labelling everything. She rummaged through the drawers and turned the house into one big exhibition of yellow labels. Why don’t you take her to an old age home? A friend suggested. Akbar never talked to him again.
He opens the refrigerator, licks his parched lower lip. There is no food. He closes the door and the label stares at him. He presses it with his fingertips. A rumbling sound emanates from his stomach. He orders a meal and seats himself on the couch, twiddling his thumbs, crossing and uncrossing his legs. Outside, the dreaded rain has arrived.
His mind wanders to his first day in England. It was raining that day too. And almost every day since. He was a boy of twenty-five, with bubbles in his stomach and a giant smile on his face. Glad to have left Kashmir, glad to be in an ‘evolved’ country, glad to be among the company of women of different races –white and black and brown. Compared to back home, everything was in high definition. The streets of London, the famous telephone booths, parks, houses – everything was crisp and refreshing. He had enrolled in Derby University for a course in analog systems (an excuse to get inside the country). In truth, he would have even chosen a course in shit hauling to come here. The first thing he wanted to do in the new country was have sex. Like every student he knew from the subcontinent, he wanted to hook up with a white girl. He wanted a brand new start to his life with no interference from his relatives, from people he hardly knew, from the suffocating society in general. Where he came from, even the sight of a ‘white’ female forearm titillates horny men more than the native breast. White, English speaking women, dressed in short skirts and cleavage revealing tops gave him a painful erection. His first few days were spent in a state of constant erection. He masturbated every day, sometimes even twice or three times. Teeth clenched and with pants down, he would plunge into libido land. But when he was around girls, he grew conscious – about his skin colour, his hair style, his body odour. Would they want to have sex with him? The question plagued him.
Back in India, he had a plan for wooing British girls. Gandhi was all the rage in the western world; he decided to casually slip in his name when talking to white girls. His march towards erotica was backed by such lines. Little did he know it was a congregational line of all Indians looking for a fuck. Youthful Gandhis obsessed with puritanical sex.
He was never going to sweep a white girl off her feet; he understood that pretty quickly, so he did what all desperate, horny losers do – visit whore houses in neon lit establishments in dark alleys full of scantily clad women and choose the whitest girl, all the while his heart about to burst through his chest. He would gulp and point to the girl of his fantasy. Alone with her, he would smile and greet her, try to make small talk and in about two minutes, he would run out of words. The room would descend into complete silence. Just the sound of his heavy breathing and his heart pumping blood.
He still remembers his first day like a kid remembers his first day at school.
No kissing and no touching, the girl had said to him as she undressed. Two seconds later when he came, she asked him: Was this your first time? His face went red as quickly as he had orgasmed. His male ego was hurt, stabbed with a pointed dagger. He did what he was good at – immersed himself in books. Art of love making, Sex in 69 positions. Cum-sutra. He read them all while he waited for a bus; at night time with a torch in his dorm; in class hidden from the sight of his professor. But he never got an opportunity to put his new-found knowledge to test. No kissing, no touching, was all he ever managed to get from a hooker.
After every ruckus in the sack, his conscience would weigh down upon him, abuse him and shame him and he hated himself for it. After every session he promised himself never to return, never to commit such an unholy act again. Fucking disgrace!
To get rid of his addiction, he decided to get married. His father talked to his brother who in turn talked to his friend and in no time, the whole of Srinagar was looking for a match for hypersexual Akbar. That is how Noori, a simple Kashmiri girl with the face of an angel and the heart of a child, came to live with him in an alien country, among alien people. I thought you would have a fountain outside your house, she told him when she arrived at her first future home, 6, Waterloo Court, for the first time.
Even after marriage, even after Noori made his life easy, whores never left him! No matter how hard he tried to stay away from the whore house, one way or the other, like a dog to a bone, like a pig to shit, he found himself inside the neon lit rooms.
Noor, I have a confession to make, he told her one day, on his return from a whore house. And he told her everything. An unfeigned, sincere, genuine confession. By the end of his confession they embraced (he embraced and she sat there like a mannequin), his head buried in her bosom. He hoped against hope that somehow, just somehow, she would find it in herself to accept his heart-felt apology. That was their second year together.
The weeks after his confession were hard. She gave him the silent treatment. They slept on their respective sides of the bed, as if a barbed wire separated them; never crossing to the other side. That is when he started with his acts of kindness, those silly acts that girls can’t resist. Acts that can melt stones and move mountains. A flower by her bed side. A note on the dining table. A few weeks later, she forgave him though she never let him forget it. She took an unbreakable vow from him. She became his therapist, his nurse, his life. Though, some days, his hormones waged a war against his will and all he wanted was to visit a prostitute and give it to her, but at times like that love of his wife proved too strong, too daunting a hurdle to overcome.
He washes his plate, puts it in the rack, just like Noori liked it. He seats himself on the couch right next to where Noori used to sit. He feels her presence, her warmth right next to him. He extends his arm as if to touch her, but grasps at thin air. He opens a magazine, rushes through the pages, turns on the telly, shakes his head, turns it off, walks up to the window, stares at the clock, counting the seconds under his breath – tick… tock… tick… tock.
He recalls her first days in Derby. She hated it. No one spoke her language, no one knew her, no one acknowledged her. It was like living on low grade oxygen. Seeing her fumble through her new life reminded him of his initial struggle in the country. Afraid of smoking in public; afraid of ordering food; afraid of talking to superior white people. The first few months, he walked everywhere: could never muster enough courage to board a bus. But then he did learn the new ways. He did smoke in no smoking zones.
He had to program her; like a bird teaching his little one to fly. He introduced her to the new currency, to Derby, to English ways and customs. ‘Sorry and thank you go a long way here,’ he told her. He instructed her about traffic lights. He helped her with everything except toilet paper. He couldn’t teach her that. She would have to figure that out herself. Not exactly a romantic conversation or a dinner topic. It would have been like teaching sex education to his children. The children he never had. Smiles he never saw, laughter he never heard, tears he never wiped, cheeks he never kissed. A child, a son or a daughter is what they wanted the most. They did try a lot but she never missed her periods. She never felt like tasting tamarind.
Unlike couples in similar positions, they didn’t bother with doctors and experts. They did not know who was lacking. They did not care. Was she sterile or was he impotent? Hormones couldn’t put a wedge between them. In fact, it brought them closer.
The old age home in Belper had a few rules and regulations. A new patient could not entertain any visitor for the first two weeks. No phone calls for the first week. ‘Sir, it helps them to adapt better,’ the warden told him when he protested. She disappeared into the dilapidated building and tears welled up in his eyes. He went numb. His insides protested.
When he visited her for the first time, the nurse escorted him to her room. She was not there. ‘I guess she’s in the common room,’ she said.
The common room was a rather large room with panelled walls and plush white sofas and a big Persian rug on the floor. The light from the two lamps at each end of the sofa illuminated her face. She was playing trump in mixed doubles. Cards in her hand, a smile on her face, a twinkle in her eyes, scarf wrapped around her neck. Her partner was an old man with a head full of white hair. They were huddled around a coffee table, there was laughter and giggles. He sat by her side. She turned towards him and didn’t say a word. He had rehearsed this meeting a million times but at the moment of reckoning he froze. They did not exchange a word. Her face gave away no signs of recognition. Half an hour later when he left her, she was still busy with her game. Next day he visited her again. She was in her room. This time, the meeting went a little according to the plan. She hugged him. They sat, side by side, hand in hand, big smiles on their faces.
‘Why did you not visit me earlier?’ she said.
‘But I did.’
‘Forget about it.’
Their eyes met. They laughed. They kissed – a peck on the lips. They talked and talked. And just when they were about to forget the miseries of the recent past, the white-haired man dropped by. She introduced them. They shook hands. Both of them took a seat opposite each other while she moved to the kitchen corner of the room to make tea. The sound of her spoon clinking against the cup as she mixed sugar disturbed the dense silence that hung in the room. She walked up to them with two cups of tea. Akbar’s eyes followed her every movement as she put the cups down and took a seat on the chair between them. His body grew tense. He waited for her to speak but instead she turned towards Steve. In a few moments, they were immersed in conversation… something about fish and rain. In that moment, he realized that the twinkle in her eyes was no longer meant for him.
‘Sir, you will have to get used to it,’ the doctor told him when he asked him about his wife’s queer behaviour. ‘At this stage, their brain can only retain so much.’
Twice he went to meet her and twice she was busy with Steve, sipping tea, chatting.
Yesterday when he paid her a visit, she was alone and glum. Steve had gone out to meet his family. All they did was talk about him. She talked and he listened. A strange glow lit her face and her eyes twinkled like a baby’s when she took his name. He knew he had a decision to make.
The clock strikes four. He clenches his teeth. His eyes are blood red. A sudden burst of energy shoots through his spine. Snorting, his chest heaving, he strides up to the refrigerator and tears off the label on it, then the label from the shoe rack. Like a raging beast, he rummages through the whole house and shreds every yellow label into a million pieces. Out of breath, huffing and puffing, he grabs his clothes, his books and other items and puts them in a big rucksack, turns off the main switch, starts the engine and zooms off to Belper.
Dawood is an aspiring writer from Kashmir, J&K. To pay his bills, he works as a Network Security Engineer in Bangalore. His passions are reading and travelling. He wants to be a writer to tell stories. His work has been published in ‘Muse India’, ‘Indian Ruminations’ and ‘Indus Women Writing’.