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Vermillion

by Anil Menon

The woman with the golden curls was yammering away in English. Indu Saxena tried to pay attention, but her daughter Nina was tugging at her sari, the tea was threatening to boil over, the postman was waiting irritably with a package, and Mrs. Patel’s kids wanted to know if she’d seen their cricket ball.

“Do I look like I’ve been playing cricket?” shrieked Indu in Hindi, and the kids scattered like geckos. She took the tea off the stove and smiled at Sarah, who was still talking.

“Akaash comes any time now. Office shuts at 5:00 p.m..” Indu had exhausted her English vocabulary. Her impoverished father had ruled out college for her, the eldest of three brothers and two sisters.

Sarah nodded. Her eyes kept darting furtively around the small, whitewashed room. She’d met Akaash during his time at Oxford, Indu had learnt, and was here in Pune for a String theory conference.

“Do you want the package or not, sister?” snapped the postman.

Indu didn’t bother to reply as she finished spooning sugar into the tea. Finally, she took the package from the postman and signed the acknowledgement slip. People kept sending physics books to her husband, even though, as far as she could tell, he rarely read them. She collected the postage stamps.

“What’s it about?” she’d once asked, flicking through a clean-smelling book, its pages filled with squiggly arrows and rows of symbols neatly arrayed like rice fields.

“A mirror’s view. Love poems,” he replied, his eyes acquiring a familiar remoteness. The explanation didn’t explain why these books agitated him, and didn’t explain why his hands would occasionally start to shake, the shakes worsening the more he tried to hide them. Shakes, shivers, and spilled tea; sepia stained blots that hid the man whom she called her husband.

The postman shut the door with an unnecessary bang, startling Sarah.

“Um … Indu … it looks like you’re really busy. I shouldn’t have barged in like this. Look, let me take a rain cheque on the tea. I have to be back at the hotel, anyway. I’m giving the keynote speech at the conference tomorrow, and it’s been a little … tiring. Akaash can reach me on my cell- it’s on my card.”

To Indu’s surprise, the foreigner stood up, as if she planned to leave. Indu gestured towards the tea. Leaving without something to eat or drink? Impossible! Indu forced her guest back into the chair.

“Little tea. Just a little. Nothing doing. OK?” Indu deftly poured the tea.

Sarah gave up, and took a cautious sip.

“Lovely tea,” she said with a smile, but Indu sensed she was lying. Had she put in too much sugar? Was the woman worried about the calories?

Indu pushed the plate of Glaxo biscuits and Annarsi sweets towards Sarah. Diwali, the festival of lights, was still a week away, but for Nina’s sake she’d already made the first batch of sweets.

“No fat, Sarah,” lied Indu, with an encouraging smile.

Sarah put down her cup and asked if she could use the bathroom.

Bathroom? Then Indu understood. Oh, toilet. She hesitated, then explained that while each apartment in the building had a tiny bathroom, they all shared toilets. Did Sarah really want to?

“I guess I can wait,” said Sarah, sitting down. She had a dazed expression.

Poor woman, thought Indu. The heat must be getting to her. Sarah’s face was all blotchy and sweaty, framed by wilted golden curls. The tip of her nose was peeling. What was she doing so far from her home? Did she have one? It didn’t look like she was married. No ring or mangal-sutra. Of course, that didn’t mean anything. Only Hindus wore mangal-sutras, and didn’t Akaash always say, “it doesn’t mean a damn thing, Indu?”

Indu touched her two-string bead necklace with its square gold pendant.

“The four-cornered eyes of a little God,” said Sarah in a far away voice, just as the silence became oppressive.

Indu smiled uncertainly. “God? This? No. Mangal-sutra. Marriage…” She struggled to translate ‘sutra’. “Necklace! Marriage necklace. Marriage sign. Also this.” She pointed to the vermillion bindi on her forehead. “More tea?”

***

A sea and sixteen spoons, otherwise known as the Sanskrit-English Dictionary Project.

The scholars greeted Akaash with delight.

“At last!” shouted Mr. Godbole. “Our computer has arrived.” Turning to the man he was debating with, he said, “Prepare to be annihilated, Mr. Bhatta.”

“On the contrary-”

“Do be quiet. You’ll only embarrass yourself further. Akaash-beta, we have a controversy for you. ‘Hamsa’ as any well-behaved child knows, means ‘swan.’ But Mr. Bhatta here claims that it actually means ‘flamingo’. Yes. Flamingo! Would you kindly share your thoughts on the matter?”

“I’ll try,” said Akaash, amused by their life-or-death expressions. “Actually, gentlemen, the swan is a British import. There were no swans in Ancient India. The correct translation of ‘hamsa’ is ‘goose.’ The ‘rajahamsa’ which Apte translates as ‘royal swan’ is actually the Anser indicus, the bar-headed goose. Majestic, yes, but still a goose. The Anser anser and Anser cinerus correspond to the ‘kalahamsa,’ the grey goose. Almost all the existing translations of the autumn poems of Manovinda, Bhasa, Visakadatta, Satananda, Subhanga, etc. are, therefore, in serious error. Jean Phillipe Vogel has published a study of the subject. The Deccan Library has a copy.”

There was a momentary lull. Mr. Bhatta made a note, while Mr. Godbole looked inordinately pleased. Then the argument’s amoeba extended itself in another direction.

Akaash looked at the Sanskrit scholars with affection. They represented a math problem. Sixteen scholars locked in a rectangular room the size of a miser’s heart. If the sea of words had four million drops, and it took about ten days for a scholar to taste a single drop, then compute, O Mathematician, the number of days required to empty the sea?

Answer: Two and a half million days. And that was an optimistic estimate.

Akaash poured himself a cup of water from the room’s single earthen pot. The water felt cool on the tongue and tasted mineral. He sat down in a wicker chair by one of the file cabinets and closed his eyes.

Someone was shaking his arm. He opened his eyes. It was past seven, and most of the scholars had already dispersed. Akaash had been dozing for nearly half an hour.

“I’m going home,” said Mr. Godbole, “Coming, Akaash-beta? I’m sure Indu would like to see you home early today.”

Why? Go home and do what? Have dinner, listen to Indu’s laundry list of complaints, play with Ninarika for a while, then yawn his way through the tiresome Hindi movies that Indu likes to watch? He guiltily suppressed the thought. The poor woman incessantly strove to please, which often irritated him, but which he at times also appreciated. Akaash sighed.

“I think I’ll finish my editing for the day. I dislike the idea of leaving them incomplete.”

Mr. Godbole looked at him as if he wanted to say something, but didn’t quite know how to voice it. It was an uncharacteristic situation and lent Mr. Godbole’s face an uncharacteristic shrewdness.

“Very well,” the old scholar said. “Don’t be too late. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” Then he slapped his forehead. “Wait, I just remembered. You had a phone call around five. Some woman. Sounded English. Radon? Lucy? Some such name.”

“Sarah Rado?” His heart leaped.

“Yes! That sounds like it. I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Why are the English so miserly with their syllables? I asked her to call again and leave a message on the machine. Old friend?”

“Yes.”

“From the old college days?”

“Yes.”

“Married?”

“Good question.”

Mr. Godbole gave up. He donned his twenty-year old coat, wrapped his equally old scarf around his neck, took a pinch of snuff, sneezed violently, again instructed Akaash not to work too hard, and finally left the room.
At first, Akaash hardly recognized the strong, clear tone on the voicemail. But then memory blazed like the saffron field he’d once seen in Kashmir, with its thousands of vermillion blooms.

“Ack-ack! You know who! I’m calling from your apartment. Indu and I have been waiting here for you. But it looks like you’re going to be late, and I’ve a party-thing to go to. But hey, I’m going to be in town for a week. I’m here for a string theory conference, and I’m staying at the Le Meridien; the party’s there too, by the way. My cell’s died, which makes things a little complicated. But screw all that. Just get here. It’s been what, nine years? Ten? And oh, yeah, check out page twelve in the Times of India. There’s an intervie-” DADDY! DADDY! – “Sorry about that. Looks like Nina wants to say something as well. So you’re a daddy! Well … find me, Ack-ack. OK? Here’s-”

The rest of the message was filled with Nina’s warbling and ended abruptly.

Sarah. He played the message again, savouring the way she spoke English. This time he sensed a slew of unasked questions, skirting the edges of her message.

Akaash thought for a few seconds, then placed a quick phone call to Indu and headed for the bus stop. It was late enough for him to get a seat on the bus. He thumbed to page twelve of the newspaper.

“World Knit With Error Says Top Physicist,” claimed the caption. No kidding. But the article did a reasonable job of summarizing the Vermillion revolution in Physics.

In 1995, while studying soft collision data generated at Hamburg’s HERA accelerator, Saxena and Rado had considered what would happen if physical laws, specifically, the ones in QCD, were inexact? What if the equations did not balance? The discrepancies – errors – were tiny, near infinitesimals, but what if these were important as a whole, the “weight of nothing,” Sarah was quoted as saying. In a theoretical tour de force – the mathematics had been drawn from sources as exotic as Robinson’s theory of hyperreals and Belnap’s four-valued logic of entailment – they showed that Physics was inexact not because of a lack of human intelligence, but because the universe was an inexact construction.

In their foundational paper, explained the reporter, Saxena and Rado had compared the error to a “bindi”, a little vermillion daub on each equation. Hence the name, Vermillion models.

Tick, tock, time. Sarah, he remembered, had sneaked in the metaphor into the final draft of their paper without consulting him. How they’d fought.

“A bindi is a symbol of protection, not of error,” he’d shouted, hands shaking uncontrollably, a portent of the eventual unravelling of his future as a physicist, with her by his side.

The article had a photograph of Dr. Sarah Rado. She wore glasses now, but her stance was the same: eager, alert, and thrust forward, as if she’d been made to adorn the prow of future’s ship.

***

She spotted Akaash the moment he entered the room. He was thinner than she remembered, and there was grey in his hair where she’d imagined black. Against the milling backdrop of short, balding physicists, he looked even taller. A quiet tiredness seemed to have settled over him.

Next to her, Dr. Shivalingam, the chief organizer of the conference, was saying something about quantum foam, transgression intervals and Planck violations. Vermillion this, vermillion that. The bindi story had really taken hold; a metaphorical gesture had obscured the true story.

What would the good Dr. Shivalingam say if she told him that the seed for Vermillion had been planted on a muggy Oxford afternoon. She and Akaash had been struggling with an intractable problem: virtual particles could not be observed; nonetheless, they could be used to successfully explain certain distortions in the trajectories of observable particles. It was, Akaash had told her, a kind of applied mysticism, not too far removed from the theories of angels dancing on pinheads first brought up by Aquinas. Could there be some other, less mystical, approach to particle physics?

On that day, Time had been as green as the back of a tree frog. She had been wearing nothing but a string of black pearls around her neck. When Akaash reached out to her at the precise moment that the yearning for intimacy overwhelmed isolation, she leaned forward to be caressed. However, instead of touching her, Akaash snapped the necklace with a sharp tug.

A cascade of black pearls, an outstretched hand and arching instep, the gasp of the little death.

“Why on earth did you do that?” Sarah asked later, more puzzled than exasperated, as they scooted around on the carpet, naked, picking up pearls.

“It was too perfect a match,” he’d explained.

“With what?”

“With an old Indian math-poem. It goes something like this:

While making love, a necklace broke,
a row of pearls mislaid.
One sixth fell to the floor; one-fifth upon the bed.
She saved one-third, and one-tenth her lover caught. If six pearls remained on the broken cord,
How many, O fair maiden, were there all together?”

“Trivial, O Weird Indian,” she said. “Thirty.”

Of course, it hadn’t been about pearls or poems; in Ack-ack’s associative mind, a cigar was never just a cigar.

So she counted what they’d retrieved. Pearls and particles.

“Only twenty six pearls here, Ack-ack. You owe me four.” She’d re-scoured the floor, but had to give up.

“Or the problem needs to be rephrased.” His expression was a strange combination of agitation and excitement.

“Meaning?”

“Particle physics is the story of conservation equations; mass-energy equations. When the left hand side doesn’t balance with the right, we invent particles to make things balance; Fermi’s neutrino is the classic example. Virtual particles are exempt from conservation laws because they only exist for small unobservable intervals. But what if it’s not a question of particles being exempt or not exempt from exact laws; instead, what if all conservation laws, all symmetries, are only approximates? What if there is no such thing as an exact law or an exact balance or a perfect symmetry? What if all laws come with error distributions? I know, I know. It’s a nightmare, but are virtual particles any less disturbing?”

They’d indeed been able to get rid of virtual inventions, but the world was now a little more frightening: inexact, error-driven, sloppy. To say the world is an uncertain place is really only a statement about limited human capabilities. But to say that it’s inexact was, to some at least, a statement deriding its presumed designer.

It all happened such a long time ago. She touched her temple, smoothing away a tenacious curl. She wanted to stroke his name.

Dr. Shivalingam paused in his derivations on non-existent blackboards as Sarah waved for Akaash to join them.

Dr. Shivalingam looked like he’d seen a ghost. “Dr. Saxena?” he asked incredulously. “I thought-”

“Yes, still alive,” said Akaash with a self-deprecatory laugh. “Good to see you, sir. And how are you, Sarah?”

Ack-ack was as English, thought Sarah, as the House of Lords. Dr. Rado, I presume. She squeezed his fingers as they shook hands, and scratched his palm with one finger. Sarah luxuriated in the crazy quilt of emotions.

“We had no idea!” exclaimed Dr. Shivalingam. “What an honour! Are you based in Pune? Let me arrange a talk-”

“No, please,” Akaash held up a hand. “I came here to meet Sarah. Nothing more.”

“But you live in Pune?”

“Yes. I work with the Bhandarkar Institute now, teach a bit of Sanskrit and help with their dictionary project, that sort of thing.”

“Sanskrit!” Everything seemed incredulous to Dr. Shivalingam.

“Yes, at Pune University.”

“Pune University!”

Akaash turned to Sarah.

“Oh, he’s a lot of things, Dr. Shivalingam. I bet you didn’t know he’s the world expert on Sanskrit erotica?” She grinned at the physicist. “A modern Bhartrihari on the poetics of the navel.”

“Yes … well, um,” said poor Dr. Shivalingam, who looked like he didn’t know where to look. “Perhaps I should leave you two famous types to shoot the breeze. An unexpected honour, Dr. Saxena. I will be in touch.” He pulled out a cell phone and noted the time. “I’d better get home, or the missus will let me have it. She hates a late dinner.”

At last, thought Sarah. But Dr. Shivalingam’s departure merely opened up a vacuum that was immediately filled with nervous doctoral students, would-be collaborators with just-wanted-to-say-hellos and other distractions. “My name is Anand, Dr. Rado. I’m a Physics student at IIT, Mumbai. May I ask you a couple of questions? Just five minutes.”

She sighed. “Excuse me, Anand.”

Turning away from him, she reached into her pocket and withdrew a key-card, which she slipped into Akaash’s hand. It was a discrete gesture, private, rather than a surreptitious one filled with guilt.

“It’s room 225. Give me about fifteen minutes,” she whispered, not even looking at Akaash.

She turned back to the student. He was such a picture of button-fiddling earnestness that she had to smile.

“Exactly five minutes, Anand? How about more than four, but less than six?”

***

Indu fed her daughter handfuls of rice, taking extra care not to spill any food on her expensive red and gold wedding sari. Indu had also decorated Nina’s hands with henna; a mistake, because the vain child was too busy admiring her hands to actually use them.

“Sit still,” Indu told the squirming girl.

The delicious smell of rice, green mango pickles, and cilantro-garnished lentil soup was slowly driving her mad, since she hadn’t eaten a bite the whole day. When would Akaash get home? It was almost eight-thirty. He’d called an hour earlier, sounding rushed and excited.

“Indu, I’m going to be late,” he’d said. “Don’t wait up. Kiss Ninarika goodnight for me. Bye.”

Don’t wait up? On this night? How late was he going to be? It wasn’t unusual for him to work late into the night, then stealthily creep into the house, in an effort to avoid waking her. But she always woke up anyway.

“For God’s sake, don’t you ever sleep?” he’d once snapped at her. “Do you know that I’ve never actually seen you asleep?”

“I’m not perfect. I worry, you know,” she replied, and wondered why he laughed like a man possessed.

Why, couldn’t she have her worries? She had a rosary bead of mumbles: his brooding unhappiness, his barely-concealed boredom with her, her utter dependence on him, their growing financial debt, his increasing obsession with that stupid dictionary.

In the end, she thought, I married my damn father.

The sole conditions she’d placed on her father before marriage was that he reject anyone who asked for a dowry and who was a Sanskrit pundit. Her mother, who’d suffered from the first affliction, and continued to suffer from the second, had strongly supported her conditions.

But when a marriage proposal had come from an Oxford trained physicist, a doctor, someone who had the kindest smile and the longest fingers, and whose English reminded her of the mostly incomprehensible but incredibly erotic 9:00 p.m. BBC broadcasts, the only question was how soon she could get her family to say “yes”, without sounding too desperate.

“He is too dark,” her mother sniffed.

“So was Lord Krishna,” she countered. “And he is very tall.”

“The boy speaks Sanskrit even better than I do,” her father remarked with some wonder. “I think he’s a gem.”

That should’ve been a warning. But no, she rushed pell-mell into the marriage. Now look at her. Living in a multi-apartment complex, sharing a toilet with eight neighbours, and ceaselessly worrying about Nina’s future. She had a husband who could recite Sanskrit erotic poetry by the yard but knew the meaning of none.

“Tell me a story, Amma,” pleaded Nina, when she’d been settled in the bed in the kitchen where she slept, while her parents slept in the living room that doubled as their bedroom.

“I’m tired, Ninarika. I’ve been spinning like a top the whole day. Go to sleep.”

Nina began to complain, but fell asleep mid-sentence. Indu leaned forward and kissed the child on the cheek.

The apartment suddenly seemed very quiet. Indu sat on the edge of her daughter’s bed and felt the stillness creep into her very bones.

I have silver anklets on my feet, kohl-lined eyes, and jasmine blossoms adorn my freshly washed hair. My hands are patterned with henna, my body’s scented with sandalwood, and were there a wind, it would play with my earrings. I am wearing the sari that no hand but yours has ever undone. Vermillion marks my forehead and gracing my neck is your oath to love, cherish and protect me.

I’m really starving, she thought. Maybe a little bit of rice won’t hurt.

A knock at the door.  Ha! There he is! I really have to stop being so melodramatic. She rushed to the door.

“Surely, you’re not that disappointed to see your old father,” said Mr. Godbole when the door opened.

“No, of course not! I was expecting… well, Akaash is late. I was wondering … was he still at the office when you left, father?”

“He’s on his way, I’m sure,” soothed her father. “You look lovely, beti. A tip-top married Indian lady, you are.”

“Let me make some tea. Do sit down.” She hated the quiver in her voice.

“No, no. I was on my way home. Your mother will be waiting. I only stopped by to bless my beloved daughter.”

She knelt and touched his feet.

“May all good things come to you, my dear child,” he told her gravely. She straightened, adjusted her sari, and smiled at him .

“Is everything all right?” he asked.

“Of course, father. Why shouldn’t it be?”

“Good.” Mr. Godbole hesitated. “Don’t worry. Akaash might have gone to see a friend. He’s a very absent-minded fellow, your scholar. Don’t wait up too long … and eat something if you get very hungry. You won’t be breaking a great taboo. All right?”

Her father couldn’t have it both ways, she thought. It was unfair to raise her one way with iron-clad conviction, and then preach revolt in his old age. Behold, father, she cried in silence, your creation.

“Yes, father. This friend … Sarah. Radio? Rado?”

“Yes, yes. Rado. An old friend from Oxford. You know how it is. Friends catching up.” Mr. Godbole gestured as if he were catching a cricket ball. “Catch up,” he said in English. “That’s what they say in English: ‘Let’s catch up.’” He switched back to Hindi. “What do they catch? Mosquitoes?” He laughed good-naturedly and patted her on the head. “Good night, my dear.”

“Good night, father.”

She retook her position on the edge of the bed. The apartment was oppressive now. In the distance, she heard women laughing and singing songs. She could join the merriment on the terrace, try to while away the time till he got home, but felt no inclination to do so.

I should break with my fast, she thought, feeling a little light-headed. But what her body saw, her mind would not.

***

Sarah lay carelessly on the bed, her head resting on one bent arm, a lit cigarette in the other hand. It was a non-smoking room, but its previous occupant hadn’t worried about that either.

“I’d forgotten how much I missed you,” she said in a quiet voice.

He looked at her, flexing his hands. “Whereas, I punished Indu daily with your memory.”

She looked away. “What a terrible mess you’ve made of things. What possessed you to get married? To marry her?”

“She’s a good woman.”

“I’m sure. But that wasn’t the question.”

“I met her father at the Bhandarkar Institute. I had to earn a living, even though I couldn’t stand teaching and physics any more. So I volunteered on small translation projects at the Institute. Her father is a persistent fellow. One thing led to another. A wife. A job. A child. A new life.”

“Sounds insane.”

He half-raised his hands, as if he was asking for her understanding. “At first, I was just being polite. Her father was very keen I should meet Indu. And when I did … well, she’s an ideal, like Plath’s silver and exact mirror reflecting some form of perfection. I was marrying an ethos, Sarah, even a language, not just a woman.”

“Now that sounds monstrous.”

“I’ve no complaints.”

She sat up, enraged by his Buddha-like calm. “Oh yeah? Then why are you here? When I think of you rotting here-”

“I refuse to think about a universe that has been put together by an incompetent, someone who can’t even balance an equation, whose idea of elegance consists of little dung heaps of error.”

“Oh, God, this is so bloody insane. You have a philosophical disagreement with an imagined Easter bunny’s imaginary flaws! Is that it?”

“So did Einstein. Bohr. Schrödinger. It’s an occupational disease.”

“Yes, but they remained physicists. None of them retired in their prime to sulk in mausoleums.”

“I just don’t have the faith anymore, Sarah.”

“Well, like the Pope told the priest: fake it!”

He said nothing. She felt her eyes tear up again.

“Come with me. Let’s start over. I can’t bear the idea of you in that horrid apartment. Just thinking about it makes my skin crawl.”

He smiled. “Back to the days of physics and pearls, Sarah?”

“Yes. Why not? You’re still young. I mean … I could arrange a job in England. We’ll have to start somewhere small, but in a year or two, I’m pretty sure I could move you into my team at Oxford. People still remember your work; you saw Dr. Shivalingam’s response, right? You can still work on the dictionary or Sanskrit or whatever it is you do, on the side.”

“And what about Indu? Nina?”

“We’ll work something out. I know I can. Do you think they’re happy now?”

He was silent, so she carried on eagerly.

“It’s beautiful, Ack-ack, really beautiful. The physics, I mean. We have results that indicate that there’s a whole hierarchy of approximations. The basic physical laws are approximate, of course, but there are laws regarding just how approximate, and the laws themselves are approximates, too. The set-up could be completely fractal; we’re trying to figure out its structure at the moment. If you wanted to build a universe, and error is inevitable, then this is how you’d go about it – using a hierarchy.”

He shrugged. It communicated both indifference and rejection. Akaash slid out off the bed and walked over to the window.

“Maybe you could help me, Sarah.”

“Anything.”

“Could you arrange for some computers? The dictionary really needs-”

“Screw the bloody dictionary! What’s wrong with the current references?”

“They’re all incomplete. Worse, they are inaccurate, often to the point of absurdity. Will you help?”

“It’s a dead language, Akaash. Dead.”

“Actually, I have my doubts about whether Sanskrit’s a language at all. It’s almost a kind of spoken math.” Akaash paused. “Will you help?”

“Whatever.” She gave in. “All right, send me a list of the things you need. Now come back to bed.” When he didn’t respond, she asked, “What’s the matter?”

He was staring at the thin silver crescent of the moon.

“It’s karwa chauth! I completely forgot.”

“It’s what?”

“A festival before Diwali, on the fourth day after the new moon. I’m supposed to break Indu’s fast with a handful of rice.”

“Why on earth is she fasting?”

“It’s a day on which married Hindu women fast for the well-being of their husbands. It’s a kind of a covenant. It’s very important to her. Goddamnit!”

And to you, she thought, staring at his agitated face. “If she’s hungry enough, she’ll eat, I’m sure.”

“No, she won’t.”

Well, she’ll starve then, thought Sarah. “It’s almost four in the morning, Ack-ack. Are you sure she can’t wait? She’s probably asleep by now. I mean, it’s done, right?”

“I have to get back.” He began looking for his trousers. “I don’t know how I could’ve forgotten it. Poor thing, she must be unbelievably hungry.”

“Will you be back?”

They stared at each other for a long moment.

“No, Sarah,” he said softly.

Her anger melted away at the sadness in his voice. She got up, quietly helped him with this and that, stealing little strokes here and caresses there, which would have to last her the long years ahead.

They embraced at the door. “I’ll get you those damn computers, OK? If there’s anything else you need, let me know.”

“I will.” He sighed. “I’m tempted to say I can’t understand why I haven’t earlier. But I do.”

He embraced her again, and found his hands roaming up and down her back, despite himself. Fanatic, intractable devotees though they were of a science that knew no course other than its strict laws, like those of Moses’ mad desert god, they too admitted the desirability of error.

***

By the time he reached home, dawn had begun to grant objects their old reassuring shapes. The door creaked more loudly than it ever had, and he was forced to still it mid-swing. But it was unnecessary. Indu was fast asleep, her back to the door. He gingerly closed the door behind him and silently observed his wife. Poor thing. She was all decked out in the festival’s required finery. How long did she wait? She was lying diagonally across the bed, and he knew he’d wake her if he tried to make room. He decided to wait out the night in the armchair.

“Akaash!”

He woke up to a cup of tea and a smile. He leaped out off the chair and grasped her by the shoulders.

“I’m so sorry, Indu,” he said in Hindi. “I got talking with an old friend – you met her, right? Sarah? And before I knew, it was four. I completely forgot that it was karwa chauth. Come, let’s get you something to eat.”

She set the tea aside. “Oh, I ate something.”

“You ate? Great! I was really worried you’d-”

“I waited for a while,” she said with a smile. “Are you mad at me?”

“Of course not!” He kissed her forehead. “I’m sorry-”

“Phew!” She shrank from his touch. “Were you smoking?”

“Oh, no. That’s Sarah. I mean … she likes to smoke. We lost track of time. I really am so sorry… I should’ve called.”

“But you did,” she reminded him. “You told me not to wait.”

“Yes, I did. But still…”

She was loosening her braid. “Would you mind if I take my bath first? I need to get to the ration shop.”

“Sure. But what’s the hurry?”

She hesitated. “They’re interviewing for a part-time helper in the mornings. I’d be home before Nina gets back from school, and we could do with the extra money.”

He realized she wasn’t asking for his permission. He stared after her as she moved towards the bathroom.

“When did you decide all this?”

“Mrs. Patel told me not to be late,” said Indu over one shoulder. “She works there, you know.”

Something had fallen out of joint. He drank his tea as he peered around the little kitchen. Indu’s touch was everywhere, from the garish pictures of chubby gods and goddesses, to the folded clothes and neatly arranged cooking utensils. Suddenly, it all seemed very precious.

It’s only my guilt, he thought, masquerading as remorse. But the explanation failed to comfort him.

He watched her towel-dry her hair, change into her sari, and hook her blouse with the familiar gestures he’d seen a thousand times before, but never really noticed. She smiled back at him; it was a distracted, invulnerable smile that didn’t particularly seek out his reaction.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked.

“Yes, why shouldn’t I be?” she replied, looking puzzled. “How do I look?”

That was it. She was all right. She had suffered, greatly, and she had survived. Now she looked at him as if she knew him, but didn’t quite remember who he was.

He forced a smile, then began reciting a poem.

“So lovely that
I’m loathe to let you leave.
Come, let me bruise your lips,
Scratch your arms,
So that others may also know
this woman is loved.”

She laughed, but it was as if his words had bounced off a reflective and impenetrable surface. “Uh huh. Some other time, Kalidasa. I have to be off. Wake Nina up; the lazy girl will sleep all day if you let her.”

“You’ve forgotten something.”

“Oh yes, my umbrella.” She retrieved it from the stand.

“Something else.”

“What?”

He took a pinch of vermillion from the little brass tray. “It’s nothing, and everything at the same time. Here.”

She looked genuinely vexed. “I’m really absent-minded today.” She raised her face to him, and he carefully marked her forehead. Their eyes met.
“Forgive me,” he said.

For a savage, wounded second, it seemed like her composure would crack. Then the wildness in her eyes faded.

“Akaash, my father told me on the day we got married that I was to treat you as my god. In principle.” She waved away his embarrassed protests. “A small god, to be sure. But I would not have a perfect one. That would be too frightening. Wouldn’t it?”

He realized that was the only forgiveness he would get. She didn’t wait for his answer. She unfurled her umbrella and, angling it against the hard clear light of the ancient sun, went out to meet the bright new day.

Copyright © 2005 by Anil Menon

Anil Menon worked for about nine years in the software industry worrying about things like secure distributed databases. Then he shifted to a different kind of fiction. He is a 2004 Clarion West graduate and his stories have been published in several magazines and anthologies. His first novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet was published by Zubaan. Travelling his home country regularly, he currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA.  His homepage is at http://anilmenon.com/

The woman with the golden curls was yammering away in English. Indu Saxena tried to pay attention, but her daughter Nina was tugging at her sari, the tea was threatening to boil over, the postman was waiting irritably with a package, and Mrs. Patel’s kids wanted to know if she’d seen their cricket ball.

“Do I look like I’ve been playing cricket?” shrieked Indu in Hindi, and the kids scattered like geckos. She took the tea off the stove and smiled at Sarah, who was still talking.

“Akaash comes any time now. Office shuts at 5:00 p.m..” Indu had exhausted her English vocabulary. Her impoverished father had ruled out college for her, the eldest of three brothers and two sisters.

Sarah nodded. Her eyes kept darting furtively around the small, whitewashed room. She’d met Akaash during his time at Oxford, Indu had learnt, and was here in Pune for a String theory conference.

“Do you want the package or not, sister?” snapped the postman.

Indu didn’t bother to reply as she finished spooning sugar into the tea. Finally, she took the package from the postman and signed the acknowledgement slip. People kept sending physics books to her husband, even though, as far as she could tell, he rarely read them. She collected the postage stamps.

“What’s it about?” she’d once asked, flicking through a clean-smelling book, its pages filled with squiggly arrows and rows of symbols neatly arrayed like rice fields.

“A mirror’s view. Love poems,” he replied, his eyes acquiring a familiar remoteness. The explanation didn’t explain why these books agitated him, and didn’t explain why his hands would occasionally start to shake, the shakes worsening the more he tried to hide them. Shakes, shivers, and spilled tea; sepia stained blots that hid the man whom she called her husband.

The postman shut the door with an unnecessary bang, startling Sarah.

“Um … Indu … it looks like you’re really busy. I shouldn’t have barged in like this. Look, let me take a rain cheque on the tea. I have to be back at the hotel, anyway. I’m giving the keynote speech at the conference tomorrow, and it’s been a little … tiring. Akaash can reach me on my cell- it’s on my card.”

To Indu’s surprise, the foreigner stood up, as if she planned to leave. Indu gestured towards the tea. Leaving without something to eat or drink? Impossible! Indu forced her guest back into the chair.

“Little tea. Just a little. Nothing doing. OK?” Indu deftly poured the tea.

Sarah gave up, and took a cautious sip.

“Lovely tea,” she said with a smile, but Indu sensed she was lying. Had she put in too much sugar? Was the woman worried about the calories?

Indu pushed the plate of Glaxo biscuits and Annarsi sweets towards Sarah. Diwali, the festival of lights, was still a week away, but for Nina’s sake she’d already made the first batch of sweets.

“No fat, Sarah,” lied Indu, with an encouraging smile.

Sarah put down her cup and asked if she could use the bathroom.

Bathroom? Then Indu understood. Oh, toilet. She hesitated, then explained that while each apartment in the building had a tiny bathroom, they all shared toilets. Did Sarah really want to?

“I guess I can wait,” said Sarah, sitting down. She had a dazed expression.

Poor woman, thought Indu. The heat must be getting to her. Sarah’s face was all blotchy and sweaty, framed by wilted golden curls. The tip of her nose was peeling. What was she doing so far from her home? Did she have one? It didn’t look like she was married. No ring or mangal-sutra. Of course, that didn’t mean anything. Only Hindus wore mangal-sutras, and didn’t Akaash always say, “it doesn’t mean a damn thing, Indu?”

Indu touched her two-string bead necklace with its square gold pendant.

“The four-cornered eyes of a little God,” said Sarah in a far away voice, just as the silence became oppressive.

Indu smiled uncertainly. “God? This? No. Mangal-sutra. Marriage…” She struggled to translate ‘sutra’. “Necklace! Marriage necklace. Marriage sign. Also this.” She pointed to the vermillion bindi on her forehead. “More tea?”

***

A sea and sixteen spoons, otherwise known as the Sanskrit-English Dictionary Project.

The scholars greeted Akaash with delight.

“At last!” shouted Mr. Godbole. “Our computer has arrived.” Turning to the man he was debating with, he said, “Prepare to be annihilated, Mr. Bhatta.”

“On the contrary-”

“Do be quiet. You’ll only embarrass yourself further. Akaash-beta, we have a controversy for you. ‘Hamsa’ as any well-behaved child knows, means ‘swan.’ But Mr. Bhatta here claims that it actually means ‘flamingo’. Yes. Flamingo! Would you kindly share your thoughts on the matter?”

“I’ll try,” said Akaash, amused by their life-or-death expressions. “Actually, gentlemen, the swan is a British import. There were no swans in Ancient India. The correct translation of ‘hamsa’ is ‘goose.’ The ‘rajahamsa’ which Apte translates as ‘royal swan’ is actually the Anser indicus, the bar-headed goose. Majestic, yes, but still a goose. The Anser anser and Anser cinerus correspond to the ‘kalahamsa,’ the grey goose. Almost all the existing translations of the autumn poems of Manovinda, Bhasa, Visakadatta, Satananda, Subhanga, etc. are, therefore, in serious error. Jean Phillipe Vogel has published a study of the subject. The Deccan Library has a copy.”

There was a momentary lull. Mr. Bhatta made a note, while Mr. Godbole looked inordinately pleased. Then the argument’s amoeba extended itself in another direction.

Akaash looked at the Sanskrit scholars with affection. They represented a math problem. Sixteen scholars locked in a rectangular room the size of a miser’s heart. If the sea of words had four million drops, and it took about ten days for a scholar to taste a single drop, then compute, O Mathematician, the number of days required to empty the sea?

Answer: Two and a half million days. And that was an optimistic estimate.

Akaash poured himself a cup of water from the room’s single earthen pot. The water felt cool on the tongue and tasted mineral. He sat down in a wicker chair by one of the file cabinets and closed his eyes.

Someone was shaking his arm. He opened his eyes. It was past seven, and most of the scholars had already dispersed. Akaash had been dozing for nearly half an hour.

“I’m going home,” said Mr. Godbole, “Coming, Akaash-beta? I’m sure Indu would like to see you home early today.”

Why? Go home and do what? Have dinner, listen to Indu’s laundry list of complaints, play with Ninarika for a while, then yawn his way through the tiresome Hindi movies that Indu likes to watch? He guiltily suppressed the thought. The poor woman incessantly strove to please, which often irritated him, but which he at times also appreciated. Akaash sighed.

“I think I’ll finish my editing for the day. I dislike the idea of leaving them incomplete.”

Mr. Godbole looked at him as if he wanted to say something, but didn’t quite know how to voice it. It was an uncharacteristic situation and lent Mr. Godbole’s face an uncharacteristic shrewdness.

“Very well,” the old scholar said. “Don’t be too late. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” Then he slapped his forehead. “Wait, I just remembered. You had a phone call around five. Some woman. Sounded English. Radon? Lucy? Some such name.”

“Sarah Rado?” His heart leaped.

“Yes! That sounds like it. I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Why are the English so miserly with their syllables? I asked her to call again and leave a message on the machine. Old friend?”

“Yes.”

“From the old college days?”

“Yes.”

“Married?”

“Good question.”

Mr. Godbole gave up. He donned his twenty-year old coat, wrapped his equally old scarf around his neck, took a pinch of snuff, sneezed violently, again instructed Akaash not to work too hard, and finally left the room.
At first, Akaash hardly recognized the strong, clear tone on the voicemail. But then memory blazed like the saffron field he’d once seen in Kashmir, with its thousands of vermillion blooms.

“Ack-ack! You know who! I’m calling from your apartment. Indu and I have been waiting here for you. But it looks like you’re going to be late, and I’ve a party-thing to go to. But hey, I’m going to be in town for a week. I’m here for a string theory conference, and I’m staying at the Le Meridien; the party’s there too, by the way. My cell’s died, which makes things a little complicated. But screw all that. Just get here. It’s been what, nine years? Ten? And oh, yeah, check out page twelve in the Times of India. There’s an intervie-” DADDY! DADDY! – “Sorry about that. Looks like Nina wants to say something as well. So you’re a daddy! Well … find me, Ack-ack. OK? Here’s-”

The rest of the message was filled with Nina’s warbling and ended abruptly.

Sarah. He played the message again, savouring the way she spoke English. This time he sensed a slew of unasked questions, skirting the edges of her message.

Akaash thought for a few seconds, then placed a quick phone call to Indu and headed for the bus stop. It was late enough for him to get a seat on the bus. He thumbed to page twelve of the newspaper.

“World Knit With Error Says Top Physicist,” claimed the caption. No kidding. But the article did a reasonable job of summarizing the Vermillion revolution in Physics.

In 1995, while studying soft collision data generated at Hamburg’s HERA accelerator, Saxena and Rado had considered what would happen if physical laws, specifically, the ones in QCD, were inexact? What if the equations did not balance? The discrepancies – errors – were tiny, near infinitesimals, but what if these were important as a whole, the “weight of nothing,” Sarah was quoted as saying. In a theoretical tour de force – the mathematics had been drawn from sources as exotic as Robinson’s theory of hyperreals and Belnap’s four-valued logic of entailment – they showed that Physics was inexact not because of a lack of human intelligence, but because the universe was an inexact construction.

In their foundational paper, explained the reporter, Saxena and Rado had compared the error to a “bindi”, a little vermillion daub on each equation. Hence the name, Vermillion models.

Tick, tock, time. Sarah, he remembered, had sneaked in the metaphor into the final draft of their paper without consulting him. How they’d fought.

“A bindi is a symbol of protection, not of error,” he’d shouted, hands shaking uncontrollably, a portent of the eventual unravelling of his future as a physicist, with her by his side.

The article had a photograph of Dr. Sarah Rado. She wore glasses now, but her stance was the same: eager, alert, and thrust forward, as if she’d been made to adorn the prow of future’s ship.

***

She spotted Akaash the moment he entered the room. He was thinner than she remembered, and there was grey in his hair where she’d imagined black. Against the milling backdrop of short, balding physicists, he looked even taller. A quiet tiredness seemed to have settled over him.

Next to her, Dr. Shivalingam, the chief organizer of the conference, was saying something about quantum foam, transgression intervals and Planck violations. Vermillion this, vermillion that. The bindi story had really taken hold; a metaphorical gesture had obscured the true story.

What would the good Dr. Shivalingam say if she told him that the seed for Vermillion had been planted on a muggy Oxford afternoon. She and Akaash had been struggling with an intractable problem: virtual particles could not be observed; nonetheless, they could be used to successfully explain certain distortions in the trajectories of observable particles. It was, Akaash had told her, a kind of applied mysticism, not too far removed from the theories of angels dancing on pinheads first brought up by Aquinas. Could there be some other, less mystical, approach to particle physics?

On that day, Time had been as green as the back of a tree frog. She had been wearing nothing but a string of black pearls around her neck. When Akaash reached out to her at the precise moment that the yearning for intimacy overwhelmed isolation, she leaned forward to be caressed. However, instead of touching her, Akaash snapped the necklace with a sharp tug.

A cascade of black pearls, an outstretched hand and arching instep, the gasp of the little death.

“Why on earth did you do that?” Sarah asked later, more puzzled than exasperated, as they scooted around on the carpet, naked, picking up pearls.

“It was too perfect a match,” he’d explained.

“With what?”

“With an old Indian math-poem. It goes something like this:

While making love, a necklace broke,

a row of pearls mislaid.

One sixth fell to the floor; one-fifth upon the bed.

She saved one-third, and one-tenth her lover caught. If six pearls remained on the broken cord,

How many, O fair maiden, were there all together?”

“Trivial, O Weird Indian,” she said. “Thirty.”

Of course, it hadn’t been about pearls or poems; in Ack-ack’s associative mind, a cigar was never just a cigar.

So she counted what they’d retrieved. Pearls and particles.

“Only twenty six pearls here, Ack-ack. You owe me four.” She’d re-scoured the floor, but had to give up.

“Or the problem needs to be rephrased.” His expression was a strange combination of agitation and excitement.

“Meaning?”

“Particle physics is the story of conservation equations; mass-energy equations. When the left hand side doesn’t balance with the right, we invent particles to make things balance; Fermi’s neutrino is the classic example. Virtual particles are exempt from conservation laws because they only exist for small unobservable intervals. But what if it’s not a question of particles being exempt or not exempt from exact laws; instead, what if all conservation laws, all symmetries, are only approximates? What if there is no such thing as an exact law or an exact balance or a perfect symmetry? What if all laws come with error distributions? I know, I know. It’s a nightmare, but are virtual particles any less disturbing?”

They’d indeed been able to get rid of virtual inventions, but the world was now a little more frightening: inexact, error-driven, sloppy. To say the world is an uncertain place is really only a statement about limited human capabilities. But to say that it’s inexact was, to some at least, a statement deriding its presumed designer.

It all happened such a long time ago. She touched her temple, smoothing away a tenacious curl. She wanted to stroke his name.

Dr. Shivalingam paused in his derivations on non-existent blackboards as Sarah waved for Akaash to join them.

Dr. Shivalingam looked like he’d seen a ghost. “Dr. Saxena?” he asked incredulously. “I thought-”

“Yes, still alive,” said Akaash with a self-deprecatory laugh. “Good to see you, sir. And how are you, Sarah?”

Ack-ack was as English, thought Sarah, as the House of Lords. Dr. Rado, I presume. She squeezed his fingers as they shook hands, and scratched his palm with one finger. Sarah luxuriated in the crazy quilt of emotions.

“We had no idea!” exclaimed Dr. Shivalingam. “What an honour! Are you based in Pune? Let me arrange a talk-”

“No, please,” Akaash held up a hand. “I came here to meet Sarah. Nothing more.”

“But you live in Pune?”

“Yes. I work with the Bhandarkar Institute now, teach a bit of Sanskrit and help with their dictionary project, that sort of thing.”

“Sanskrit!” Everything seemed incredulous to Dr. Shivalingam.

“Yes, at Pune University.”

“Pune University!”

Akaash turned to Sarah.

“Oh, he’s a lot of things, Dr. Shivalingam. I bet you didn’t know he’s the world expert on Sanskrit erotica?” She grinned at the physicist. “A modern Bhartrihari on the poetics of the navel.”

“Yes … well, um,” said poor Dr. Shivalingam, who looked like he didn’t know where to look. “Perhaps I should leave you two famous types to shoot the breeze. An unexpected honour, Dr. Saxena. I will be in touch.” He pulled out a cell phone and noted the time. “I’d better get home, or the missus will let me have it. She hates a late dinner.”

At last, thought Sarah. But Dr. Shivalingam’s departure merely opened up a vacuum that was immediately filled with nervous doctoral students, would-be collaborators with just-wanted-to-say-hellos and other distractions. “My name is Anand, Dr. Rado. I’m a Physics student at IIT, Mumbai. May I ask you a couple of questions? Just five minutes.”

She sighed. “Excuse me, Anand.”

Turning away from him, she reached into her pocket and withdrew a key-card, which she slipped into Akaash’s hand. It was a discrete gesture, private, rather than a surreptitious one filled with guilt.

“It’s room 225. Give me about fifteen minutes,” she whispered, not even looking at Akaash.

She turned back to the student. He was such a picture of button-fiddling earnestness that she had to smile.

“Exactly five minutes, Anand? How about more than four, but less than six?”

***

Indu fed her daughter handfuls of rice, taking extra care not to spill any food on her expensive red and gold wedding sari. Indu had also decorated Nina’s hands with henna; a mistake, because the vain child was too busy admiring her hands to actually use them.

“Sit still,” Indu told the squirming girl.

The delicious smell of rice, green mango pickles, and cilantro-garnished lentil soup was slowly driving her mad, since she hadn’t eaten a bite the whole day. When would Akaash get home? It was almost eight-thirty. He’d called an hour earlier, sounding rushed and excited.

“Indu, I’m going to be late,” he’d said. “Don’t wait up. Kiss Ninarika goodnight for me. Bye.”

Don’t wait up? On this night? How late was he going to be? It wasn’t unusual for him to work late into the night, then stealthily creep into the house, in an effort to avoid waking her. But she always woke up anyway.

“For God’s sake, don’t you ever sleep?” he’d once snapped at her. “Do you know that I’ve never actually seen you asleep?”

“I’m not perfect. I worry, you know,” she replied, and wondered why he laughed like a man possessed.

Why, couldn’t she have her worries? She had a rosary bead of mumbles: his brooding unhappiness, his barely-concealed boredom with her, her utter dependence on him, their growing financial debt, his increasing obsession with that stupid dictionary.

In the end, she thought, I married my damn father.

The sole conditions she’d placed on her father before marriage was that he reject anyone who asked for a dowry and who was a Sanskrit pundit. Her mother, who’d suffered from the first affliction, and continued to suffer from the second, had strongly supported her conditions.

But when a marriage proposal had come from an Oxford trained physicist, a doctor, someone who had the kindest smile and the longest fingers, and whose English reminded her of the mostly incomprehensible but incredibly erotic 9:00 p.m. BBC broadcasts, the only question was how soon she could get her family to say “yes”, without sounding too desperate.

“He is too dark,” her mother sniffed.

“So was Lord Krishna,” she countered. “And he is very tall.”

“The boy speaks Sanskrit even better than I do,” her father remarked with some wonder. “I think he’s a gem.”

That should’ve been a warning. But no, she rushed pell-mell into the marriage. Now look at her. Living in a multi-apartment complex, sharing a toilet with eight neighbours, and ceaselessly worrying about Nina’s future. She had a husband who could recite Sanskrit erotic poetry by the yard but knew the meaning of none.

“Tell me a story, Amma,” pleaded Nina, when she’d been settled in the bed in the kitchen where she slept, while her parents slept in the living room that doubled as their bedroom.

“I’m tired, Ninarika. I’ve been spinning like a top the whole day. Go to sleep.”

Nina began to complain, but fell asleep mid-sentence. Indu leaned forward and kissed the child on the cheek.

The apartment suddenly seemed very quiet. Indu sat on the edge of her daughter’s bed and felt the stillness creep into her very bones.

I have silver anklets on my feet, kohl-lined eyes, and jasmine blossoms adorn my freshly washed hair. My hands are patterned with henna, my body’s scented with sandalwood, and were there a wind, it would play with my earrings. I am wearing the sari that no hand but yours has ever undone. Vermillion marks my forehead and gracing my neck is your oath to love, cherish and protect me.

I’m really starving, she thought. Maybe a little bit of rice won’t hurt.

A knock at the door. Ha! There he is! I really have to stop being so melodramatic. She rushed to the door.

“Surely, you’re not that disappointed to see your old father,” said Mr. Godbole when the door opened.

“No, of course not! I was expecting… well, Akaash is late. I was wondering … was he still at the office when you left, father?”

“He’s on his way, I’m sure,” soothed her father. “You look lovely, beti. A tip-top married Indian lady, you are.”

“Let me make some tea. Do sit down.” She hated the quiver in her voice.

“No, no. I was on my way home. Your mother will be waiting. I only stopped by to bless my beloved daughter.”

She knelt and touched his feet.

“May all good things come to you, my dear child,” he told her gravely. She straightened, adjusted her sari, and smiled at him .

“Is everything all right?” he asked.

“Of course, father. Why shouldn’t it be?”

“Good.” Mr. Godbole hesitated. “Don’t worry. Akaash might have gone to see a friend. He’s a very absent-minded fellow, your scholar. Don’t wait up too long … and eat something if you get very hungry. You won’t be breaking a great taboo. All right?”

Her father couldn’t have it both ways, she thought. It was unfair to raise her one way with iron-clad conviction, and then preach revolt in his old age. Behold, father, she cried in silence, your creation.

“Yes, father. This friend … Sarah. Radio? Rado?”

“Yes, yes. Rado. An old friend from Oxford. You know how it is. Friends catching up.” Mr. Godbole gestured as if he were catching a cricket ball. “Catch up,” he said in English. “That’s what they say in English: ‘Let’s catch up.’” He switched back to Hindi. “What do they catch? Mosquitoes?” He laughed good-naturedly and patted her on the head. “Good night, my dear.”

“Good night, father.”

She retook her position on the edge of the bed. The apartment was oppressive now. In the distance, she heard women laughing and singing songs. She could join the merriment on the terrace, try to while away the time till he got home, but felt no inclination to do so.

I should break with my fast, she thought, feeling a little light-headed. But what her body saw, her mind would not.

***

Sarah lay carelessly on the bed, her head resting on one bent arm, a lit cigarette in the other hand. It was a non-smoking room, but its previous occupant hadn’t worried about that either.

“I’d forgotten how much I missed you,” she said in a quiet voice.

He looked at her, flexing his hands. “Whereas, I punished Indu daily with your memory.”

She looked away. “What a terrible mess you’ve made of things. What possessed you to get married? To marry her?”

“She’s a good woman.”

“I’m sure. But that wasn’t the question.”

“I met her father at the Bhandarkar Institute. I had to earn a living, even though I couldn’t stand teaching and physics any more. So I volunteered on small translation projects at the Institute. Her father is a persistent fellow. One thing led to another. A wife. A job. A child. A new life.”
“Sounds insane.”

He half-raised his hands, as if he was asking for her understanding. “At first, I was just being polite. Her father was very keen I should meet Indu. And when I did … well, she’s an ideal, like Plath’s silver and exact mirror reflecting some form of perfection. I was marrying an ethos, Sarah, even a language, not just a woman.”

“Now that sounds monstrous.”

“I’ve no complaints.”

She sat up, enraged by his Buddha-like calm. “Oh yeah? Then why are you here? When I think of you rotting here-”

“I refuse to think about a universe that has been put together by an incompetent, someone who can’t even balance an equation, whose idea of elegance consists of little dung heaps of error.”

“Oh, God, this is so bloody insane. You have a philosophical disagreement with an imagined Easter bunny’s imaginary flaws! Is that it?”

“So did Einstein. Bohr. Schrödinger. It’s an occupational disease.”

“Yes, but they remained physicists. None of them retired in their prime to sulk in mausoleums.”

“I just don’t have the faith anymore, Sarah.”

“Well, like the Pope told the priest: fake it!”

He said nothing. She felt her eyes tear up again.

“Come with me. Let’s start over. I can’t bear the idea of you in that horrid apartment. Just thinking about it makes my skin crawl.”

He smiled. “Back to the days of physics and pearls, Sarah?”

“Yes. Why not? You’re still young. I mean … I could arrange a job in England. We’ll have to start somewhere small, but in a year or two, I’m pretty sure I could move you into my team at Oxford. People still remember your work; you saw Dr. Shivalingam’s response, right? You can still work on the dictionary or Sanskrit or whatever it is you do, on the side.”

“And what about Indu? Nina?”

“We’ll work something out. I know I can. Do you think they’re happy now?”

He was silent, so she carried on eagerly.

“It’s beautiful, Ack-ack, really beautiful. The physics, I mean. We have results that indicate that there’s a whole hierarchy of approximations. The basic physical laws are approximate, of course, but there are laws regarding just how approximate, and the laws themselves are approximates, too. The set-up could be completely fractal; we’re trying to figure out its structure at the moment. If you wanted to build a universe, and error is inevitable, then this is how you’d go about it – using a hierarchy.”

He shrugged. It communicated both indifference and rejection. Akaash slid out off the bed and walked over to the window.

“Maybe you could help me, Sarah.”

“Anything.”

“Could you arrange for some computers? The dictionary really needs-”

“Screw the bloody dictionary! What’s wrong with the current references?”

“They’re all incomplete. Worse, they are inaccurate, often to the point of absurdity. Will you help?”

“It’s a dead language, Akaash. Dead.”

“Actually, I have my doubts about whether Sanskrit’s a language at all. It’s almost a kind of spoken math.” Akaash paused. “Will you help?”

“Whatever.” She gave in. “All right, send me a list of the things you need. Now come back to bed.” When he didn’t respond, she asked, “What’s the matter?”

He was staring at the thin silver crescent of the moon.

“It’s karwa chauth! I completely forgot.”

“It’s what?”

“A festival before Diwali, on the fourth day after the new moon. I’m supposed to break Indu’s fast with a handful of rice.”

“Why on earth is she fasting?”

“It’s a day on which married Hindu women fast for the well-being of their husbands. It’s a kind of a covenant. It’s very important to her. Goddamnit!”

And to you, she thought, staring at his agitated face. “If she’s hungry enough, she’ll eat, I’m sure.”

“No, she won’t.”

Well, she’ll starve then, thought Sarah. “It’s almost four in the morning, Ack-ack. Are you sure she can’t wait? She’s probably asleep by now. I mean, it’s done, right?”

“I have to get back.” He began looking for his trousers. “I don’t know how I could’ve forgotten it. Poor thing, she must be unbelievably hungry.”

“Will you be back?”

They stared at each other for a long moment.

“No, Sarah,” he said softly.

Her anger melted away at the sadness in his voice. She got up, quietly helped him with this and that, stealing little strokes here and caresses there, which would have to last her the long years ahead.

They embraced at the door. “I’ll get you those damn computers, OK? If there’s anything else you need, let me know.”

“I will.” He sighed. “I’m tempted to say I can’t understand why I haven’t earlier. But I do.”

He embraced her again, and found his hands roaming up and down her back, despite himself. Fanatic, intractable devotees though they were of a science that knew no course other than its strict laws, like those of Moses’ mad desert god, they too admitted the desirability of error.

***

By the time he reached home, dawn had begun to grant objects their old reassuring shapes. The door creaked more loudly than it ever had, and he was forced to still it mid-swing. But it was unnecessary. Indu was fast asleep, her back to the door. He gingerly closed the door behind him and silently observed his wife. Poor thing. She was all decked out in the festival’s required finery. How long did she wait? She was lying diagonally across the bed, and he knew he’d wake her if he tried to make room. He decided to wait out the night in the armchair.

“Akaash!”

He woke up to a cup of tea and a smile. He leaped out off the chair and grasped her by the shoulders.

“I’m so sorry, Indu,” he said in Hindi. “I got talking with an old friend – you met her, right? Sarah? And before I knew, it was four. I completely forgot that it was karwa chauth. Come, let’s get you something to eat.”

She set the tea aside. “Oh, I ate something.”

“You ate? Great! I was really worried you’d-”

“I waited for a while,” she said with a smile. “Are you mad at me?”

“Of course not!” He kissed her forehead. “I’m sorry-”

“Phew!” She shrank from his touch. “Were you smoking?”

“Oh, no. That’s Sarah. I mean … she likes to smoke. We lost track of time. I really am so sorry… I should’ve called.”

“But you did,” she reminded him. “You told me not to wait.”

“Yes, I did. But still…”

She was loosening her braid. “Would you mind if I take my bath first? I need to get to the ration shop.”

“Sure. But what’s the hurry?”

She hesitated. “They’re interviewing for a part-time helper in the mornings. I’d be home before Nina gets back from school, and we could do with the extra money.”

He realized she wasn’t asking for his permission. He stared after her as she moved towards the bathroom.

“When did you decide all this?”

“Mrs. Patel told me not to be late,” said Indu over one shoulder. “She works there, you know.”

Something had fallen out of joint. He drank his tea as he peered around the little kitchen. Indu’s touch was everywhere, from the garish pictures of chubby gods and goddesses, to the folded clothes and neatly arranged cooking utensils. Suddenly, it all seemed very precious.

It’s only my guilt, he thought, masquerading as remorse. But the explanation failed to comfort him.

He watched her towel-dry her hair, change into her sari, and hook her blouse with the familiar gestures he’d seen a thousand times before, but never really noticed. She smiled back at him; it was a distracted, invulnerable smile that didn’t particularly seek out his reaction.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked.

“Yes, why shouldn’t I be?” she replied, looking puzzled. “How do I look?”

That was it. She was all right. She had suffered, greatly, and she had survived. Now she looked at him as if she knew him, but didn’t quite remember who he was.

He forced a smile, then began reciting a poem.

So lovely that

I’m loathe to let you leave.

Come, let me bruise your lips,

Scratch your arms,

So that others may also know

this woman is loved.”

She laughed, but it was as if his words had bounced off a reflective and impenetrable surface. “Uh huh. Some other time, Kalidasa. I have to be off. Wake Nina up; the lazy girl will sleep all day if you let her.”

“You’ve forgotten something.”

“Oh yes, my umbrella.” She retrieved it from the stand.

“Something else.”

“What?”

He took a pinch of vermillion from the little brass tray. “It’s nothing, and everything at the same time. Here.”

She looked genuinely vexed. “I’m really absent-minded today.” She raised her face to him, and he carefully marked her forehead. Their eyes met.
“Forgive me,” he said.

For a savage, wounded second, it seemed like her composure would crack. Then the wildness in her eyes faded.

“Akaash, my father told me on the day we got married that I was to treat you as my god. In principle.” She waved away his embarrassed protests. “A small god, to be sure. But I would not have a perfect one. That would be too frightening. Wouldn’t it?”

He realized that was the only forgiveness he would get. She didn’t wait for his answer. She unfurled her umbrella and, angling it against the hard clear light of the ancient sun, went out to meet the bright new day.

© . .

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