To the Edge We Go

If allowed to, disappointments break much more than hearts. They are like those invisible elements that invade our existence these days — the ones that float with the air we breathe, seep into the earth that mothers the food we eat, and mingle with the water that quenches our thirst. The days begin like any other, the nights break like any other. The house stands just the way it did yesterday, its foundation swaying with the hollowness. But everything threatens to buckle under the stress of ether fumigated with deliberate cause and deliberate effect.

Take for instance the choices of Niyati and Achal, the heroes of our story. A married couple that could quail their surroundings with their mutual wrath. Or blossom flowers with just a glance of their combined goodness. Such was the strength of these two people, joined together in holy matrimony. Or so the pandit at the marriage ceremony declared thirty-three years back. Niyati was twenty-one, and Achal was thirty when they vowed to take care of each other in front of the ever-consuming fire of the havan kund. Niyati, a sweet-smiled waif; Achal a dark charmer. Their strengths, however, failed to transport them beyond their weakness — ego.

Chapter 1 — The Two Aspirants

Niyati grew up with six siblings. Her parents, Ma and Babuji for the children, were indulgent without allowing the girls and boys too much. The mansion made up for the restraint the parents imposed. Niyati and her brothers and sisters managed to sneak out to the mango grove to play endless games focused around the trees. Hot afternoons or humid ones, they knew no stopping. These games were an escape for the children, after all. It might sound like fantastic fun, but there was something slightly amiss. None of Niyati’s siblings was of her age-group, and none of them shared her outlook. The oldest sisters and brother were too brash in their play. The youngest sister and brothers were too frivolous. There was an intimate association between the two age-groups, and she longed to be part of that despite her differences with both of them. She did try, but couldn’t succeed much — sometimes because of their in-acceptance of her different ways, sometimes because of her impatience with theirs.  She danced a different dance than all of the others.

When Niyati was old enough to know that her life’s train would soon change tracks with an arranged marriage, she began to dream of a man who loved her, supported her, possibly even climbed mango trees with her. She dreamed of finally finding a friend, an intimate confidant who’d accompany her to stupendous spans of love, respect, fun and most importantly, propriety. A man, who gave his everything to her, like she would give all of her to him. It was essential, really, for both to be virginally committed to each other — otherwise, it would be half a pleasure.

Achal was a loner of a different breed. He spent time with people, charmed them, but he was mostly alone in his world and never let anyone in. He had four siblings, all of them much older than him, all of them busy with their own individuality. Their parents, Ma and Pitaji for the children, were loving, but distant. If individualism were made the prerequisite for survival, the members of this family would be among the few prosperous ones. Achal went on jeep drives, tiger hunts, picnics around waterfalls, jaunts with beautiful girls — he allowed the world to embrace him. But never allowed it to feel his heart.

He did fall in love with a girl, though. They dreamt of marrying and doing things all those in love dream of doing. He fought a lot with his mother when she put her foot down against this marriage — she didn’t like the girl. Yes, he did fight for his love, but his mother won. The fact that his girlfriend’s mother didn’t support their marriage either did not help much. Achal had no choice but to look forward to a different life with a different woman. It did not weigh on his well being for long. A love, in a way unrequited, was something he was willing to leave behind. He wanted to look ahead. His mother sought another girl for him after his girlfriend got married. Yes, it was going to be arranged, his marriage. His mother was keen to find a soft, gentle girl for her emotional boy.

She found Niyati.

Chapter 2 — The Ever After

“I know exactly what you are!”

“The hell you do! I haven’t forgotten her after all these years because of just one reason — you. You do not let her go, damn it!”

They had been whispering shouts for the last half an hour, having started off their occasional after-a-party argument right after the last guest had left. Their two children, now 10 and 7, were trying to remember to forget this pounding rage coming from the other room before they drifted to sleep.

In the morning, things would be just the way they were in the mornings. Niyati and Achal would transform into doting parents, forgetting — or pretending to forget — that they were disappointed spouses.

This tiny world they had created with love — yes, they did find love in each other, and for their children — gasped for fresh air, and ached for some respite from shrunken hearts. From the outside, it seemed an ideal world. The children’s friends envied the obvious love they received and Niyati and Achal’s friends saw them as a decent couple working through the minor disagreements all married people with dignity have the right to have.

It was different behind the closed doors, now, wasn’t it?

Sometimes Achal wondered whether he really should have been honest with Niyati and told her about the girlfriend who was not to be; and right after their marriage, too. Sometimes he admitted that Niyati first needed to have been given a chance to believe him when he said that his future with her was important to him now.

Niyati did not like the necessity of having to use the now. Its implication — that there had been a then — irked her.

As a consequence, everything they had done in the last eleven years of their marriage shouted out at Niyati’s latent fear of not being good enough, forcing it to come out. And it culled her much-aspired-for hope to find a man who thought she was, in fact, much more than good enough. She couldn’t help overlooking the love in his eyes when their fingers brushed against each other accidentally in a party, or when someone praised the flower arrangement at the coffee table in the centre of the drawing room she so meticulously beautified. Or when he implored her to follow her dream of learning English, just because. She slapped off his unsure hand that was extended with love, hope and a desire to build something good.

Why did she do so when all she wanted was just that? She wanted his companionship and support. She wanted his confidence. Achal misunderstood her changing needs, though. He did not comprehend that she sometimes needed to be led, sometimes needed to be walked with. So he invariably swapped the two — tried to lead her when she wanted a companion, and tried to become an onlooker when she wanted to be led. Achal began to lose interest in his frustrated attempts. Niyati began to believe her dream was now never to be realised; Achal thought she would never get beyond her complaints.

However, Niyati and Achal occasionally surprised themselves, each other and everyone else who’d seen enough of their impatient sparring. They demonstrated supreme compatibility and enviable comfort with each other sometimes. It was so overwhelming, that their children stopped time in their minds to savour this rare treat. As years approached and they accepted their lives with each other, the two also began to look at their own faults from time to time. Niyati told herself that she had indeed been foolish to begrudge Achal his girlfriend, because she was, after all, no one significant in their lives. Achal had withstood all of her moody complaints, and kept his intention of seeing his future with her as the only life he wanted to consider. He did deserve trust in return. Meanwhile, Achal had learnt to appreciate her unique ability of being a great housewife, a caring mother, and a witty companion.

But these acknowledgements were rare. The magnitude of their disapproval was far greater than that of their appreciation. Years got added to the eleven they had already collected. Life went on, disappointments piled up, until appreciation and respect got buried beyond memory.

Chapter 3 — After the Ever After

It was dawn, and the sunlight had found its way in. A white water lily nodded to the gentle winter breeze. Achal and Niyati had spent the night sitting on the couch, looking at the softly lit courtyard outside. They had not slept at all, and talked a little. Just a little about their boy. It had been a year since he had gone away, promising never to come back. He would be thirty-two today. How indefatigable is life! Their first born was gone, but they still lived — life wouldn’t let go of them.

“I’ll make us some chai,” Niyati said as she began to get up.

“No, wait. Sit a while more first.” She sat down again. Her dainty, wrinkled fingers fiddled with a part of her saree’s long edge.

Achal was looking at the distant redness of the rising sun, his forefinger writing invisible words in the air. “Do you remember the first time he cried?”

“Of course I do. He was in your arms, just born.”

“No, not that. First time as a young man.”

“It was the only time.”

“Yes. His sister was about to get married, everything was perfect — until we found it necessary to argue right there at the mandap.”

“We could never do them enough justice, could we?” Niyati shifted a little for no apparent reason, and gazed at nothing in particular.

“I hope we did.”

The birds were coming home to feed their young. Parrots chattered their throats out, as if today was the only day to talk. The day was breaking. Niyati heard the distant ring-ring of the milkman’s bicycle and got up to go and fetch the patila.

“Don’t make chai just yet. Come back,” Achal repeated his wish, and got up to check on the newspaper. It hadn’t arrived. He kept standing at the doorstep, looking out at the plants he’d nurtured lovingly. The garden was full of asters, his son’s favourite. He had never understood why he chose asters over so many others. Perhaps because of his interest in astronomy? He sighed at another unanswered question.

Niyati made to get out of the door to get the milk. The milkman was almost at the gate.

Ramjanam, aaj do kilo chahiye.”

Ji, memsahib. Kuch khaas?”

Haan, bhaiya ka janmadin hai. Aaj kheer banaoongi.”

Ramjanam poured out the milk from the measuring cup he dipped into one of his three huge canisters. He gave her a little more than the two kilos she had asked for.

Achal didn’t say it, but he understood Niyati’s heavy heart. If a mother had to take extra milk to prepare her son’s favourite dessert even if he would never come, it was almost like watering a plant that had long succumbed to the withering rays of the sun. He wanted to reach out and hug her till both their hearts wept out years. The last one in particular.

Her eyes fell on the carved wooden nameplate her son had made for them — Niyati & Achal’s Home, it said. She looked down at the patila instantly, and concentrated on bringing it inside without spilling any milk.

She put the milk on the stove to boil, and came and sat down on the couch.

“Do you want some puris? With the kheer?”

“It’s been years since I’ve had kheer with puri. Yes. Make some today,” said Achal, putting the newspaper away. He wasn’t reading it anyway. “Should I make tea today? It’s been a long time since I made tea for you.”

“It’s been a long time, indeed.”

Achal took her hands in his, and said, “We’ll live beyond all of this. Do you see that?”

“I don’t know how, Achal,” tears streamed down her eyes, as she looked into the old eyes that once mirrored their owner’s hesitant love. They still showed love, this time determined.

“I don’t know how either.”

Niyati felt her usual rage rising from deep inside her again. But she just pulled her hands out of his gently, and looked away. How could he give her hope and then take it back again? She wanted to punish him with her usual vitriol, but didn’t; she was too tired to fight.

“I see nothing beyond. What are we left with?”

Achal straightened his back against the couch back and stretched his arm on its edge, “We have us, broken as we are, and we have our daughter. What about her? Have you thought of what this means to her?”

“She has her family. And I have no energy to think of what she is going through.”

“Are you really that hard-hearted?” Achal began to see his usual disbelief at her attitude resurfacing.

“Have I ever had a choice?” Niyati’s frown was reappearing. She had been trying lately to at least keep her irritation with life in general out of her face.

Achal tried to take one of her hands again; she resisted. He tugged gently at it as tears began to drop down on her saree.

He put his arms around her and rocked her back and forth gently, in turn rocking himself. And he cried with her.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Unfamiliar words and pronunciations

PanditPuhn-Dit – Hindu priest

Havan kundHuh-Vuhn Ku-n-d – the square pit used to light fire in auspicious ceremonies.

MandapMuhn-Duhp – the usually square area in which the marriage ceremony takes place.

PatilaPuh-Teela – A deep vessel usually used to store milk

Ramjanam, aaj do kilo chahiye. – “Ramjanam, (I) want two kilos today.”

Ji, memsahib. Kuch khaas? – Yes, memsahib. Is there anything special today?

Haan, bhaiya ka janmadin hai. Aaj kheer banaoongi. – Yes, it is bhaiya’s (older brother) birthday. I’ll make some kheer today.

PuriPooree – Flat, deep fried bread made of whole wheat flour.

KheerKheer – A rice pudding made by cooking rice in milk until most water in the milk evaporates and gives a divinely creamy, thick consistency to the pudding.

NiyatiNih-yuh-Tee – Fate

Achal – Uh-chUhl – The Unmovable One, Steady

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38 thoughts on “To the Edge We Go”

  1. I am so sad for them. Sometimes one thing, one thing in the past, can be such an obstacle to happiness! But who’s right and who’s wrong in this? It doesn’t matter. Should two people, locked in a relationship, ever have the right to expect so much from the other? I just don’t know. Beautifully written, Priya. It was a delight to absorb the culture within the universal language of disappointment and longing.

    1. Jean, expectation is arguably one of the spices of life. It makes a person do. Like everything else good, though, most of us end up expecting too much, or being too attached to the expectation that we forget there are much better things being fulfilled every other second. If only we were wiser…

      Thank you for liking this story. I wrote it with a lot of heart, and it pleases me to know that you have been able to see that.

  2. Priya, this is a gorgeous piece of writing. Just two examples: “Parrots chattered their throats out, as if today was the only day to talk.” And: “He wanted to reach out and hug her till both their hearts wept out years.” And the photographs, as always, are breathtaking — especially the third one, the yellow flower with the red figure hovering in the center of the petals. Yet somehow, the picture that made me stare the longest was the one of the water-filled tire tracks running through the mud and across the grassy field; how perfect.

    1. Gorgeous. I like the word, Charles. Even more so if it is used for my writing, so thank you.

      My father and I had gone to my uncle’s farm, we saw this field right in front of the farm’s boundary. I knew I had to stop and take this picture because it seemed so appropriate in this story. You are right, it is very perfect. I do confess, though, that I do not see ‘how’ it is perfect, but I can sense it.

  3. Brava Priya on a beautifully written tale. I love your characters and I hope you work it into a longer story. A lifetime of not listening to each other, a lifetime of being angry with life… Love the ending – the possibility that perhaps the tearful hug would bring them peace and another chance as we’re reminded with the rice pudding cooking on the stove.

    Your photos are brilliant. I also love the tire tracks in the muddy field, but you always somehow capture something special in your photos of flowers. The white blossom with the drop of water just about to drip off, leaves me speechless.

    1. Immediately after I published this story, Rosie, I felt like writing more about them, and thought “Why not a longer story?” Perhaps I will do that some day.

      Thank you for your constant support and encouragement. I feel happy when I come to know that my words and pictures have brought something good into your day.

      These flowers are from the garden my parents have started in my brother’s memory. Except the yellow one. That’s from my mother’s ancestral home. To me, they all seem like they’re telling a tale.

  4. Phenomenal writing, Priya. The feelings you convey, the deep sense of longing and regret, the pain these characters buried and endured over the years. The last line is absolutely perfect, it sent chills down my spine.

    “Their first born was gone, but they still lived — life wouldn’t let go of them.”
    “The garden was full of asters, his son’s favourite. He had never understood why he chose asters over so many others. Perhaps because of his interest in astronomy? He sighed at another unanswered question.”

    Incredible how much emotion is stirred within me when I read these words, Priya! You have a rare gift. When your book is published, I will be first in line to get an autographed copy.

    1. I have an impressive signature, Darla. And I am secretly very proud of it. I’d be delighted to send it to you even today, just to make up for the lost time. Who knows when I publish? If I publish…

      Niyati and Achal go through what most of us go through, I feel. Thankfully not in the same degree. Perhaps that is the reason why I enjoyed writing this and everyone enjoyed reading it? I also wonder if there is a way to tone down all this cycle of expectation and disappointment. It would be so relaxing.

  5. Priya, this story is filled with the hard and true facts of life. You have captured the very way in which love trips over itself and lands in mudholes of hate, only to rise again on another morning, brushing off the dirt and blossoming again into something to hold onto, something to nurture and to support.

    I am very interested in the concept of arranged marriages. When I was younger, I of course thought that arranged marriage would be like torture, like a prison. Then an Indian friend pointed out to me that arranged marriages in India hold up to the rigours of life every bit as well as love matches, often better. I’ve thought about that through the years, as I see love matches disintegrate, often with lightening speed.

    I especially loved the yellow and the white flowers….and the images of the two pairs of feet…

    1. I feel it is a mistake to see any kind of marriage as having any more chance of success than the other. This ‘custom’ is so murky, even the perception of success varies tremendously. Take for instance, me. I knew I could not have an arranged marriage, because I needed to make sure no one was ‘telling me what to do’. That is an essential part of me. Arranged marriages generally work quite well with people who have sensible parents, and are willing to give such an arrangement a try — who have little expectations. It would be well to also mention luck at this point, though.
      A friend once told me that she and her husband have a normal, routine, tension-free life because none of them had any expectations from their marriage. It was a marriage arranged by their respective parents. Ominous as it may sound, many manage to create something beautiful out of it.
      I want to delve into the arranged marriage concept a little more myself. Maybe we’ll get an opportunity to do that someday.

      I like the two pairs of feet, too.

      Thank you, Linda. Your visits always leave me enriched and refreshed.

      1. No, no.. yes, it did make me sad – enough to cry – especially when i see my future in chapter 3……… khair!
        But, isn’t that what you intended from the story? I had imagined it to be a compliment to your story-telling skills.

        1. Your future in Chapter 3? You’re kidding me, right? Your baby is going to be a ma-doting young man, if he isn’t already (which I am sure he is).

          I wanted you to feel their disappointment, and their love, and their hope. If you did that, I am happy. But if it made you sad for long, it makes me sad. Storytelling skills be damned.

          1. I do wish i could say that Priya, but i don’t know why it feels like i would be fooling myself. And it isn’t to do with my son. I don’t know if it sounds ironic or tragic when I say that even at this tender age, he is the most understanding person in my life. I have constant reminders of that.. one from just yesterday night. It’s not so much the source of disppointment in chapter 3 that had me in tears, as what is transpiring between Niyati and Achal.

            Why is it that love & hope are such fleeting feelings? Why can’t they be more rooted in one’s life to give feelings like anger & disppointment a little competition? Why is it so easy for disappointment to take over one’s being? I am not expecting you to answer these, but just voicing them here. I hope that’s okay.

          2. AIT, we never know, do we? And it is such a bliss, too. If we did know what awaits us in the future, we’d be paralysed — just as a slight premonition can debilitate us for a short or a long time if we allow it to. You’re right, making such a choice of permitting the negatives to invade us can break our being.

            Everything you say is okay. So are all of your questions, even though hearing them reminds me of how little we all know.

  6. Okay Priya, I was honestly just stopping by to say hello, but after reading your story I’ve changed my mind. (Have I missed reading your fiction before or is this the first you’ve posted?)

    I’m going to invite (read possibly arm-twist, lol) you to take part in The Rule of Three Blogfest —a month-long shared-world fiction extravaganza in October. I’m hosting it along with a other authors (really talented ones!) and having read this story, I feel you would be such a natural in the town of Renaissance, the setting we’ve dreamed up for the benefit of our fellow-authors.

    Please check it out, and tell me you’re joining in! 🙂

    1. Arm-twisting! That sounds quite adventurous; what’s more, the word reminds me of many childhood fantasies. Do give it a try once, Damyanti. If only to humour me. Please? 🙂

      But only if you think I can get the better of my increasingly diminishing eyesight. My eye doctor has strictly advised me to cut my computer time, if I wish to avoid surgery. My current screen-time owing to my freelance work plus the few rationed blogging hours are all I have for now. I promise I’ll strengthen my eyes and join in the next one. I just went through the details and am sure I’m going to miss being a part of this one. All the best with it! I see you’re one of the contestants, so I wish the rest of them some luck — you’re a formidable co-contestant, what with your brilliant writing.

      1. Lol, I’ve always been the one whose arm has been twisted..by countless cousins throughout childhood. All male. I assure you I meant it as a figure of speech….my own arms are too puny to twist anyone else’s 🙂

        Diminishing eyesight? Are you going for one of those Lasik operations? I’m worried. Tell me it is nothing serious. Blogfests come and go, so really, no sweat.

        I’m not a contestant, just one of the hosts, so my participation would be honorary. We’re thinking of publishing the shortlisted stories if they’re up to scratch, so maybe I would try and elbow my way in at that stage. Puny arms often have sharp elbows 🙂

        Keep me updated about your eyes. Please.

        1. It is just that my vision is plummeting faster than it can be comfortably seen as a side-effect of age on already weak eyes. It is an occupational hazard, what with an average of 10 hours at the computer because of my freelance work. Nothing much. Yet. And I’ve been a bad girl and have been more at the computer since I’ve been told to stay away. 🙂

          Ah ha! So I have a chance of out-arm-twisting you! I have arms that are opposite of puny, see? (I am sure some of it will trickle in to my virtual arm-twisting capabilities as well.) But does that mean I’ll lose in the Elbowing-In? Damn.

  7. Priya, the characterization of these two individuals held me in suspense…I wondered if or when either of them would blast though her barriers. He mellowed lovingly into the marriage while she seemed to perfect her distancing. You managed to underwrite a strong sense of seasoned love that only life and time can provide any couple. I’m given a feeling that neither one would let the other go – even if an opportunity did arise.

    I am saddened by you having to deal with an eyesight issue, Priya. I have emailed you, asking permission to send Therapeutic Touch to you. I feel a strong connection with you that is filled with care.

    1. Oops…my favourite photos: * the emptiness of slippery, hard to manoeuvre ruts. * the aging of a flower into fragility. * the feet of a man in a woman separately going in the same direction.

      Brilliant, Priya.

        1. “the emptiness of slippery, hard to manoeuvre ruts…” That’s exactly how I imagine Niyati’s and Achal’s life to be! Thank you for the perfect description.

          But “… she seemed to perfect her distancing.” makes me sad! I wanted to show that they both tried. If she comes across as someone who’s walking the other way, I’ll have to change/add some things.

          Thank you for offering the much needed Therapeutic Touch, Amy. I’d love it.

          Good you made allowances for a possible wicked sense of humour in me. It’s well-hidden, but it’s there.

  8. My comment’s going to be shorter than other people’s Priya as I just want to say that this is a brilliantly written story, with beautiful photos and – I love your new blog theme! 🙂

  9. Priya, I am so glad I had a quiet surrounding to take in your story. Your posts always fill me with a sense of peace and normalcy, even when the stories hold a bit of pain and sadness. I felt a relation between Niyati and Achal, if only because I am married with children. Then again, I felt a connection with their children, as I can recall the arguments of my parents.

    Arranged – not arranged – marriage has its challenges. Relationships in and of themselves have challenges. Staying together and working it out – that is what is most important. As the day continues for Niyati and Achal, I know they will stay together.

    I hope you will revisit this couple and continue the story. I still think of the man and woman you wrote about on a train ride to a funeral. I wonder where the two are now – living their own lives apart from each other, as they were merely acquaintances. Still, i wonder if they reflect back and recall their meeting.

    Your stories are true stories for many, even as works of fiction. I wish you good health, continued vision and published work. (Okay, that last wish is selfish, I admit.)

      1. Oh, and yes, I do think Jack and Shivani must’ve thought about that train journey again, and met again someday. Maybe we’ll take a peek into their lives someday. Just for an update.

    1. Tori, thank you for taking time out and reading this story. And for using the word “stunning”.

      I could sign you up for the book, if it was coming. And if it does come out, and you read it, would you please use the word again in a recommendation?

  10. Priya, I wasn’t sure at first if you wrote this, or copied it from a book. And I mean that as a compliment! What a beautiful tale. I love how you describe things, especially about wanting a husband who may climb into the mango trees with you. I think that yearning carried throughout the piece, and it was great to read.

    1. Melissa! How happy I am to see you back. But I am happier (I confess) to read that you find that the “yearning carried throughout the piece”. That is what I wanted from this story, so thank you very much.

      I hope to read more from you. Believe it or not, I’ve missed your imagery!

  11. This somehow reminds me of that play/movie “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf”, the ending mostly. Very very very well written and of course (to point out the obvious), you have a very special gift. Privileged to have run into your blog, Take care.

    1. I haven’t read “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”! I must, now. Thank you for taking out time, Saara.

      I briefly visited your blog, and it took my breath away with the intensity of its emotions. I am sure I am going to feel the same privilege when I read it.

      Have a beautiful time today!

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