The walk towards the church was a long one. The winding serpentine roads were a pain that broke her legs which reminded her of the pain that the rubber trees in her hometown might be going through, when the axe fell on them. Even then she loved to walk. She had broken her leg a few months ago. Since then walking seemed like a curse, infact a child who had just grown over her walker, could limp better than her. Although she loved ambling towards the church every Wednesday to pray the beads and hoard sanity. Having lived as a stay-at-home good-for-nothing keep of a husband who stayed away from Delhi for many months on the pretext of work, left her with a lot of time to pursue hobbies and also taught her to pray. She lazily got up to the call of a housekeeper who reminded her of her own mother, she vaguely remembered. To a breakfast that left, no room for lunch. This Wednesday she decided to not break the fast and head for church with a growling stomach. She loved quelling the groans of an empty stomach by guzzling as much water that her stomach could hold.
This was her way of rebelling against comfort food that her rich husband could afford.
The afternoon was welcomed by an unexpected deluge that tore the womb of the sky and fell on the parchment dried and devastated by the heat. They were a reminder of her childhood days in Kochi. A city washed by the sea that had hidden a thousand untold stories in her belly. Her mother had gone to God's house, that was what she was made to believe in as a child, when she was four. Her father was a businessman who never had too much time for a young daughter, who had just lost her mother to fate's dirty games. The free time he had was spent in devising new ways for filling the church coffers. They were perhaps one of the richest Syrian Christians in India, who were household names in every Syrian Christian household. The aristocratic royalty that her forefathers carried, was all that was needed to be honoured.
And to look with disdain on people who weren't as honourable as them.
As she grew up and stepped into the "marriageable age" she was ordered on the dinner table, one night by her father, who found solace in the wealth he was stashing with a petrified guilt, to find a husband for herself. For once, it came as a sigh of relief for her, unlike the other syrian Christian girls, many of whom had first known their husbands on the marriage bed. She had another story that wasn't letting a man walk in, the appendages of which choked her sometimes. She wore his shirt on days that she wanted to feel his skin on him, and many times the letters he had written to her as a young twenty-something innocent young man took her down the memory lane, that still knew their footprints. To get over him she had started following a strange exercise of writing a diary, where in she recorded the most intimate details of a love so shameless, yet so pure. She missed the fragrance of his cologne, the mole on his neck and the warmth of his arms, that she thought had grown up to remember her softness. They were school friends and neighbours who took to knowing each other's bodies from having started doing their homework as pre-school kids. He left on a Sunday morning, leaving at her side a goodbye letter that was a mystery stranger than the UFO's. On nights that she hallucinated about him, she used to see strange objects flying in her bedroom until she would shut her eyes tightly and chant a prayer.
Ralph was like an irritating common cold, that was taking its own sweet time to get cured.
The church bells always rang at the right time, never a minute late. Catholic people from around the sleepy neighbourhood of the government colonies attended the afternoon mass, so did a few enthusiastic school students who studied in the convent nearby. She loved to see those young girls hop around the grey cemented courtyard of the church that had started developing cracks much like the old famished building, that needed the touch of the masons urgently. On the wooden over-sized benches in the church, she had seen life change. Marriages had happened and baptisms too, but nothing changed for her. She still came to church everyday, to pray for a bit of love and everyday she had to meet with disappointment, as though God lost all his divine powers when she turned up with her requests. She was more like a spiritual atheist who had no hope in God, and only in the still silence of the white washed walls of the church that squeezed peace out its pores. She had an important thing to confess about and today she might have to wait after the mass to voice her confession. She hated to wait, all thanks to the privileges that were served to her on a platter. Maybe, that was the only gift her unloving husband could provide. That made her stand on six inched stilettos with not a care in the world.
The mass began and the priest and altar boys walked in. This afternoon a new priest would offer the mass. He was handsome with large almond eyes and chocolate brown skin. Despite the squint in his left eye, she found him attractive. For the overtly enthusiastic hymn singer Anna was, this was a different day. A different feeling that didn't know shame. She kept gazing at the chief celebrant of the mass, much like a four year old child standing outside a toy shop. How could she not know shame?
Perhaps,she never knew it in first place.
After the mass, many people would sit back for some more time to talk to God. She wanted to talk to someone else, this afternoon. She started pacing towards the confession box while adjusting the black veil on her head. The handsome priest will graze past the place and may get lost in a jiffy, if she didn't catch him. She wanted to meet him and talk to him. It took a lot of pestering before he agreed to meet her. With much difficulty she knelt down on the knee rest of the confession box, with her arms resting sideways and folded in prayer. The priest wore his purple stole and came over to hear her stories.
Stories crumpled inside her flesh, that had started ageing prematurely.
"My husband doesn't love me father. He needs a daily dose of demonstrative love, which a child abuse survivor like me can't give. When I say a no, he leaves the city in anger and doesn't come back for months. I want to be hugged and protected, father. And he, he just wants to trample me. Lately I have been getting bad thoughts. Thoughts that want to kill him and run away. Thoughts that bleed hatred. Can I 'Hail Mary' my way out of it?"
There was a lull for a few minutes. She quivered as she spoke those sentences. Her hands were trembling. Had she grown out of the love that she first felt for Paul, on her best friend Ruth's wedding?
"We should meet again and talk about it. I may not be able to tell you anything right now. You know even I have been an abuse survivor. I took to drinking to forget it, that uncle of mine who always appears in front of me like a monster. His sweaty palms and my tiny body trying to wriggle out of his clutches.
I have known fear closely, face to face, eye to eye."
This time it was her turn to wear silence on her lips. She knew that she shouldn't speak. She wanted to see him, look into his eyes and tell him that she would always be there to listen to him, come what may. Perhaps, in a moment of silly adventurous love that she felt so strongly for this good looking stranger, she decided to call it quits with Paul. So much she could do for a little love that had broken the walls of shame and silence, Paul and his apathy had built around her.
Suddenly she heard someone sob. And she wasn't sure of who it was. Perhaps, it was the handsome priest. Yes it was him. The very last time she had ever heard a man cry was, as a young teenager. When she had known Ralph closely, as closely as she could and as closely as an Indian girl wasn't allowed to know a man before marriage. We Indians had put everything at stake, for a little blood that the girl would shed when her body would be trespassed for the first time.
Virginity was a victory moment in marriage.
"I am sorry father. Didn't mean to bring out the ghosts of the past."
She was feeling the guilt gnash her body, for having made an innocent man cry.
"I am fine. Would you meet me again?"
He decided to stay behind the screen and not open it for a moment. Yet he wanted to meet her. In a way that a servant of God mustn't meet a woman. Something that reeked of sin, salacious sin, that was forbidden and helpless.
"Yes father. Would you give me your number, please? So that I can stay in touch with you, until we don't meet again."
They exchanged numbers and promised to meet again, like two school friends who had bumped into each other at the crowded marketplace, after ages, after ageing.
Anna decided to walk back home. Along the trails of the monstrous peepal trees firmly rooted inside the deep brown earth that had let water seep into it, like a lover’s seeds. This was the road she took every evening back home, to that lonely mansion of hers. That mansion full of servants dressed in starched whites, as if they were celebrating. Food, that a lost twenty something mistress of the house didn't want to taste.
Celebrating sounds of silence that deafened her, mocked her, flailing on the edges of her sanity everyday.
This mansion was her Cinderella story. The pink silk curtains that swayed to the careless call of air, the lights that spilled gold lavishly on leather sofas and carpets that were laid out for guests, that were strangers to guests.
The pictures that had breathed life into empty silver frames, wooden stairs polished and neatly scrubbed, rooms that only saw the door being banged at their face and a battery of cooks who only ate and were growing fat with not much work at their disposal. The study was her favourite place in the house. A place she quietly retired to when the moonlight barged into the house and amidst the classics arranged across shelves that had never tasted dust, she found a story or two that she could slip into.
This was her crawling space, she used to hate, that gagged her but still was her most loved hideout.
After having dinner which was a scrumptious meal, unlike the tasteless soups and salads she force fed herself every night, she decided to stay awake and curl up with her favourite book. Tomorrow will be the day when she will meet that handsome man.
The man who had scratched the surface of a wound that had was refusing to heal.
They decided to meet at one of those posh malls in South Delhi. Father Fredrick felt, that this was one place that his colleagues never visited most of whom went on missions in the starving locales of the city. She seated herself on one of the large tables laid outside those coffee shops that charged ten times for a coffee that Mrs.Demonte, her housekeeper brewed for free, every evening.
“Anna, how are you?”, inquired a hoarse voice from the other end of the mall.
She saw a visibly animated Father Fredrick waving at her, with the zest of a young teenager, who was out on a date with his lady love, for the very first time. She ran towards him, clutching tightly to the mug of coffee which by now had spilled all over the place and attracted quite a few eyeballs. The people around her couldn't understand the reasons behind this furious public display of affection.
She was yearning to hug him, and melt in his manly arms, that she thought were also wanting to burn against her golden honey skin with not a care of the world.
“How are you today, father?”
“I am well Anna. Would you mind calling me Fred?”
“Of course father. Oh I mean Fred.”
She always wished to address him as Fred.
They decided to take a walk across the mall. For Father Fredrick, this was a new experience, very different from the dingy quiet four walls of the Bishop’s house he had lived in, for a lifetime. They kept walking across the length and breadth of the place gleaming in golden lights, sometimes brushing past each other, knowingly in an act of frivolous fondness, that was waiting to peel the parchment of their lover’s skin.
“Fred, let’s go somewhere else. This place is loud.”, she announced authoritatively.
“Sure. Do you know of such a place. I don’t know of any except the Bishop’s house.”
This Anna thought was a poor joke, but for the first time she had seen him burst into peals of laughter.
He looked adorably cute.
“Our guest house. It’s at the other end of the city. Do you have that much time through the day?”
“Yes, I have taken a week’s leave. Told them that I am going home. People back home will think that I have gone for a mission to Chattisgarh. Forgive me Lord, for all the lies.”
He started nodding vigorously after finishing that sentence.
“If it was that tough for you, you shouldn't have come.”
“No Anna. We mustn't lie. We mustn't know a woman. It’s a sin. I don’t know. I think... I think... I don’t know.”
She clung to his hairy shoulder, which by now, had started shivering. The hand that didn’t know the touch of a woman, started maneuvering towards her frail arms, digging out a memory from her insides. The memory of the believability of touching a man again. The ache of knowing a body that was craving to discover her.
The empty spaces between her fingers were suddenly filled by the firmness of his fleshy fingers. He smiled at him, and with that squint in his left eye, she thought to believing that he would only look at her from now on.
They drove down the noisy streets of the city bustling with the movement of vehicles and people breathing inside them. Unassumingly she happened to take the route that passed through the church and Bishop’s house. This was when she saw the remnants of shame, spilling from the pores of his cassock. He shriveled and crouched like a foetus for a moment.
How beautiful was her lover, she thought, who knew shame, just like her yet was willing to risk everything he had ever earned to learn shamelessness.
They reached the guest house, a tinier rendition of her big bungalow. The house was small, but had a beautiful large garden filled with flowers of various shapes and sizes. They entered from the giant door walking into a large drawing room. Fredrick seated himself on one of the large sofas shyly like a would-be-bride meeting a prospective groom for the first time.
“I shall get you coffee.”
“I prefer green tea.”
“ Ah you have green tea as well. I love it. Wait a bit. Will be right back.”
As she walked past the room, into the largeness of the kitchen, she saw Fred quietly crouched on the sofa with his legs bent. Oh poor thing! He might have been clueless about what was happening, what will happen and what was not supposed to happen.
Anna came back a few minutes later,with two cups of green tea. She slid the curtains away from the rods to let the orangeness of the evening light pass into the room.
“How is the tea?”
“It’s good. I have it sometimes, in my room. Purifies my soul and body.”
Over a few more cups of green tea, they had long conversations about Paul and the Bishop’s house. About a marriage that was not meant to be, about a vocation that was an act of mutiny against his disciplinarian father’s harshness. Quietly, she dragged her body to the sofa laid next to the sofa Fred was seated on, and touched his left arm gently.
“Can I touch you?”
“Can I kiss you?”
The fear was vanishing into the delirium and was so was shame. Against the coldness of his shaky body, that by now was ravaging with hotness, she kissed his half-open lips, much like hers they were waiting to be touched.
As they shifted their unsteady bodies to face each other, Fred kissed her for the first time.
Mistakes were forgotten on that breezy still evening. Shame was a stranger, a warm passion their friend. They had finally found refuge from reality. Towards faithfulness of infidelity that will be their new home.
Unrepentant. Shameless. Salvation.