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Rusi Bilimoria glanced at his watch for the fifth time. Damn that woman, he thought. It was 7:15 P.M. already and still she was not ready. After nearly thirty years, Coomi's inability to be ready on time still rankled him. For years, he had lied to her about the time they were to leave for an engagement, deliberately telling her they had to leave at least half an hour sooner. At first, it had worked. But over time, Coomi had either gotten wise to his little trick or had slowed down even more, so that even this didn't work anymore.
For instance, he'd told her earlier this morning that they had to leave the house that evening at 6:30 sharp. He didn't want to be the last to arrive at Mehernosh Kanga's wedding. The memory of a month ago, when old Kaizad had greeted them at the entrance of Cama Baug and boomed, "Well, if it isn't Mr. and Mrs. Latecomer! I was just wondering if you went to the wrong wedding or what. Chalo, you are at least in time for dinner" still made him hot with embarrassment when he thought about it. To make matters worse, Coomi had turned to Kaizad and said, "So sorry, Kaizu. But you know how bad traffic is these days. And poor Rusi works so hard at his business and gets home so late. And then he has to shower just to get all that paper dust off him." And Rusi had marveled at his wife's audacity, how she had neatly transferred the blame onto him, ignoring the fact that he had been home at five o'clock and had been pacing the apartment in his gray suit and dark blue tie for an hour while Coomi was still deciding what piece of jewelry to wear with her light pinkchiffon sari.
Truth be told, he didn't even want to go to the wedding. It would be the same crowd, the women fixing their sharp gazes on Coomi and him, trying to figure out if they were on speaking terms that night, the men breathing on him with their hot, drunken breath. He dreaded the hunt for a taxi on the busy Bombay streets, the inevitable traffic jam near Grant Road, where the beggar children would swarm around the cab like locusts. He hated walking down the long, dark alley to the reception hall, past the lepers and the legless beggars on skateboards. The older he got, the less Rusi wanted to leave his home, except to go to his factory. The Bombay of his youthor at least the Bombay of his memoryhad given way to a fetid, crowded, overpowering city that insulted his senses. Stepping into the city was like stepping into a dirty sock, sour, sweaty, and putrid.
And more and more the cityits noise, violence, pollution, filthwas invading his home. Every day, the newspaper landed like a missile at his door. ELDERLY WOMAN PROFESSOR BLUDGEONED TO DEATH, the headlines screamed. CHIEF MINISTER IMPLICATED IN FINANCIAL SCANDAL. ARMED GUNMEN FLEE AFTER BANK ROBBERY.
Leaning on the railing of his third-floor apartment's balcony, Rusi surveyed the chaotic scene around him. Bicyclists weaved in and out of heavy traffic. The street department had once again dug up the sidewalk, so that it lay open like a mouth. Many of the balconies of the adjacent buildings had clothes hanging out to dry, so that denim jeans and white kurtas fluttered like flags in the wind. Involuntarily, Rusi smiled to himself, remembering how the unseemly sight had never failed to exasperate his mother. Khorshed Bilimoria had always raved about how uncooth it was to hang clothes out to dry in public, for the world to see. "Uncivilized junglees," his mother used to mutter. "These people have no class at all." It had been one of Khorshed's many peeves. If she'd caught some insolent youth peeing against a public building or a paan-chewing passerby spitting a stream of sticky red betel juice onto the sidewalk, Khorshed had not been above going after them, armed with a lecture about cleanliness being next to Godliness. Then she'd come home, muttering about how the country had gone to hell after the British left.
Today, you can't even yell at someone for pissing or spitting near your apartment building, Rusi thought. They're just as likely to turn around and spit on you. Or worse, they'll come back with their goonda friends and create God knows what mischief. Mamma was lucky to have died when she did, may her soul rest in peace.
Thinking about the city of his birth made Rusi tired. He wondered if he and Coomi should just stay home tonight and send the wedding gift tomorrow. But his conscience pinched at him. Mehernosh's father, Jimmy, was an old friend and a good neighbor. Besides, Mehernosh was a childhood friend of Rusi's daughter, Binny, and had practically lived at the Bilimoria apartment when the kids were young. He had to be there.
Rusi left the balcony and knocked on the bedroom door. "The first shift must be close to finishing dinner by now," he said to the closed door. "At this rate, if we're lucky, we'll be in time for the third shift."
"I would've been ready by now if you weren't knocking on the door every two, three minutes," came the shrill reply. "It's like the All India Radio news bulletin every two minutes, telling me what time it is."
You should leave, Rusi thought to himself in disgust as he headed back to the living room. If you were half a man, you would not say another word, just get a cab and go alone. Would serve her right, to sit at home one evening, all dressed up. Would cure her of her tardiness in one quick stroke.
But even while he thought about it, he knew he would not do it. For one thing, he knew that Coomi would never let him forget the incident, would bring it up and throw it in his face like a dirty plate every chance she got. Besides, all their neighbors and friends would be at the reception and he'd have to come up with some excuse to explain Coomi's absence. And if he lied, told them she had the flu or something, they'd all know by noon the next day anyway. Because Coomi would be up early the next morning, visiting Dosamai, the old widow who lived on the second floor, telling her about her shock and fright at finding that Rusi had "abandoned" her, had left for no reason at all, without a warning or anything. Then the two women would speculate about Rusi's strange behavior, not once mentioning the issue of Coomi's tardiness, which was legendary among those who had ever made plans with Coomi. Dosamai had herself arrived at the same system of calculation that Rusi had, so that whenever the old woman wanted Coomi to escort her to her doctor's office, she always told Coomi to be ready an hour ahead of the time they had to leave.
But Dosamai had decided years ago that it was not in her best interest to encourage harmony between Rusi and Coomi. After all, why would Coomi come and spend half the day with an elderly widow if she didn't need someone to whom she could spill the bitterness from her heart, like water from an urn? And so it was that each day Coomi arrived at Dosamai's apartment, carefully carrying her urn heart, which had filled up again overnight, and the old woman eagerly waited for that gush of bitterness and anger that announced Coomi's arrival.
If Rusi had walked out, Coomi and Dosamai would spend happy hours the next morning sticking motives on him like postage stamps. Rusi could imagine their conversation, sure as if he were present.
"This is the utter limit," Coomi would say. "How many more insults have I to bear in this lifetime? That man is making it hard for me to hold up my head in public. Just because he has no abroo-ijjat, he must think I don't care about my reputation, either."
"What can you do, deekra?" Dosamai would say in her most fatalistic voice. "Who knows what's inside the heads of these menfolk?"
They would be silent for a minute. Then Dosamai would play her ace. "What time did he get to the wedding hallcan you call someone and find out? Maybe he stopped to see someone first. Met somebody or went somewhere he didn't want you to know."
Rusi could see it now: Coomi would be sitting in Dosamai's dark living room, a pained expression on her face. "Dosamai, even if he is running around, what can I do? I cannot go around following him all over Bombay like a stray dog. To tell the truth, that thought has also crossed my mind."
Dosamai would sit still for a moment. Then she would speak as slowly and gravely as any prophet ever did. "If this dookh, this suffering, is also in your kismet, deekra, you will have to bear it. What I say to you is go to the fire temple and light a diva for five days in a row and pray for good luck. And keep an eye on Rusi's comings and goings. I've known that Rusi since he was born. He's always had an eye for the womenfolk."
"Rusi always did like women," Coomi had murmured, unable to keep the huskiness out of her voice.
But Dosamai didn't hear her. "I remember, ever since he was a little boy, he was always telling big, big stories," she continued. "How he was going to drive an imported car and buy a house at Worli and God knows what all other nonsense. Once, I caught him talking like this to my little Zubin, filling my boy's head with this foolish nonsense. Straightum-straight, I said to him, `Ae you, Rusi. Your mummy may allow you to tell these foolish stories in your house. But my son is not interested in your Cadillac or your Buick cars. We are poor people, but my Zubin is a good student and he goes to school every day. I don't want anyone filling his head with dreams of big houses or big cars. The house his old mother raised him in is good enough.'"
"So what did Rusi say?"
"Say?" Dosamai cried. "What could he say? Walked away chupchaap, without another word."
For a second, Coomi's face softened at the memory of the restless, ambitious young man Rusi had been. Oh God, that was whom she had marriedthat thin, fierce man whose dreams had rattled around in his head like silver coins in a tin can. Who was this broken, cautious, grief-bent man she found herself married to these days?
Coomi still remembered an evening from the first year of their marriage, when she was pregnant with their daughter, Binny. She and Rusi had gone to Chowpatty Beach, sitting on the gritty brown sand as they watched the pepper red Bombay sun go down. Rusi had been in high spirits that evening, talking about how his new sonit had never occurred to him that he might have a daughterwas going to bring him good luck, how he'd work even harder now that he had a whole family to support, how he wanted at least five more children (Coomi had rolled her eyes in mock horror), how he would take his son to the factory with him as soon as the kid could walk, train him, groom him to take over the family business someday. Saala, he'd pull his boys out of school and make them join the business as soon as they learned some arithmetic. He'd laughed then. "You'll see, Coomi," he said, his face as bright as the moon that was beginning to peer at them through the trees. "I know you don't believe me and that you think I'm telling these tall-tall stories, but I'll show you how successful I can be. I may not have gone to the university, but I'll still put all those college graduates to shame."
The light of his ambition had dazzled her. It was so overpowering that it burned away her words, her protests. So it remained unsaid: that she would be as happy with a baby girl; that coming from a large family herself, she didn't particularly want six children; that it didn't matter to her how successful or rich he was, she'd rather have him home in time for dinner; that she would fight him tooth and nail if he ever encouraged one of her children not to finish school. What she actually said to him was, "I know, Rusi, I know. I know all your dreams will come true someday. I just wish you didn't have to work so hard, darling."
Later that evening, they had walked up to the food stalls on the beach and each had two plates of panipoori. As always, Rusi was incredibly generous with his money, urging her to eat more, wanting to walk over to Cream Centre for ice cream. But she wanted a lassi instead, and Rusi made sure that the lassiwalla washed her glass twice, wiped the edge of the glass with his handkerchief "for germs," and only then was Coomi allowed to sip the frothy milk drink. While she drank, she eyed her dandified young husband in bemusement, thinking how different he was from the rough-tough men she had grown up around. Even then, in his white shirt and blue tie, he looked more like an energetic schoolboy than the businessman he was. It was the long, thin neck, she decided, that gave him his lost, innocent look. It was the cleanest, most vulnerable-looking neck she had ever seen, though she was at a loss to explain how a neck could so break your heart. And those eyes! They burned like coal in the gaunt cave of his face. All of him is in those eyes, she thought, all his hurts, all his losses, his father's death, his fierce ambition, his burning desire to be somebody. To do something large.
Dosamai's grave voice shook Coomi out of her reverie. "Don't just sit there like a dumb statue, Coomi. You listen to old Dosawatch that husband of yours like a hawk," she said. "This is exactly the age when they get bad ideas, as soon as they are having too many white hairs to count. And enough wicked women are out there, only wanting a man to take them to nice-nice restaurants and to buy them new clothes and gold jewelry and whatnot."
Dosamai warmed to her subject. "Arre, Coomi, I used to watch my dear Sorab so carefully, he used to tell me it was good training for him for when he was dead. He would say, `Dosa, all your staring and watching is building me up for the final hour. When I am dead and they finally lay me in the well in the Tower of Silence, naked as the day I was born, and I'll see all those vultures staring at me, I'll yell at them, "You black devils, you think your evil eye has the power to scare me? Arre, one look from my Dosa darling is more powerful than all your hungry looks put together."'"
The two women laughed. After a few minutes, Coomi reluctantly got up to leave. "Don't worry, Coomi," Dosamai said. "I will make a few discreet inquiries about Rusi myself."
If Rusi had indeed gone to the wedding without Coomi, Dosamai would have been true to her word. Those discreet inquiries meant the old woman getting on the phone and calling on her small but loyal army of woman warriors in the neighborhood. "Amy," she would have said. "This is Dosamai speaking. Heard that Mehernosh's wedding reception went well. Though why Jimmy must spend that much money on the flower decorations onstage, God only knows. Jimmy Kanga was always a big show-off, na? I say if people have money to waste, give it to charity, like the Parsi Panchayet Fund. Still, it is their business. Some people have money to burn."
After a few minutes of speculating about the nefarious ways in which Jimmy Kanga made his fortune, Dosamai would cut to the chase. "Poor Coomi was here a minute ago, crying her eyes out. That husband of hers left her at home all dressed up and went to the reception alone. Coomi says he came home, got dressed, and left the house, only. She sat for an hour thinking he would come back. Afterward, she removed her sari and just went to bed, all hungry. And you know how much Coomi likes the lagan-nu-bhonu, especially the Mughlai chicken and the pallao-daar."
"Oh, the bleddy liar," Amy would say. "He told me Coomi had the flu. But right away, I was knowing he was lying, because he turned his face away while he was talking."
"What time did he come in?" Dosamai would ask eagerly.
"He was late. I know the first paath had finished eating before he walked in."
"Ummmm," Dosamai would mutter. "Something is as fishy as a pomfret. I think Rusi has some woman on the side."
"Bechari Coomi," Amy would say. "Does she know?"
Soon, rumors would run from home to home like a telephone cable; idle speculation would harden into suspicion; suspicion would crystallize into truth, till half of Dosamai's guerrilla army would be willing to swear that they had glimpsed Rusi hopping out of the taxi at Cama Baug, with a strange young woman blowing him a kiss before the cab carried her away.
Rusi Bilimoria was of an age where it mattered what the neighbors said about him. For many years, his naked ambition and the fact that he owned his own business, no matter how erratic his fortunes, had attracted their envy and attention. Gossip buzzed around him like flies at a picnic; rumors danced around him like ghosts. But unlike the days of his ambitious youth, Rusi no longer wanted their awe or admiration. Now all he wanted was their approval. And failing that, he wanted them simply to leave him alone. So Rusi Bilimoria gritted his teeth and waited for Coomi to get dressed.
Despite himself, he could not help the rush of admiration when Coomi finally emerged from her room, wrapped up in her rose-colored sari. After all these years, Coomi was still an attractive woman. Unlike most of the women he knew, her body had not taken on the doughlike softness of age. The once-black hair was now splecked with gray but the darting dark eyes were as sharp as ever. The long nose was even more prominent now as it hung over the full, sensual lips. And yet, as he discreetly studied that face, Rusi wondered at the loss of the cheery, openhearted woman he had once loved. They used to laugh so much in the early days. Their entire group of friends had been drunk with youth and madcap playfulness, it seemed, the older members of the group as ready for a laugh as the younger ones like Rusi and Jimmy. Practical jokes, daredevil stunts, outrageous dares had made up their days: Zarin Kanga refusing to marry Jimmy until after he'd caught a stray pig for her. Soli Contractor drinking twelve Cokes on a dare and then retching at the sight of the soft drink for years. Bomi Mistry walking down the street wearing glasses with no lenses and scaring passersby when he scratched his eyes through them. How he himself had loved playing tricks on Coomi, how he'd loved it when she'd pretend to scold him and he'd pretend to be chastised. And the inevitable moment when her mock anger would be eaten up by her involuntary smile.
Like the time they'd all gone to Khandala in his car. Six or seven of them, all packed into his tiny Fiat. They were approaching a particularly steep hill when the devil got into him. He winked at his male friends, Jimmy and Bomi, silently asking them to play along. Halfway up the hill, he made the car splutter and then come to an abrupt halt. Somehow, he convinced the girls that they had to push the car uphill. The boys scattered, pretending to flag other cars down. And when, at the top of the hill, the car magically started and he finally let the women in on the joke, he thought he would die laughing. God, they were angry! Coomi especially, her dark eyes flashing as she lectured him on his bad manners and twisted sense of humor. But later, he looked at her in the rearview mirror and she smiled at him and then quickly looked away before any of the others could notice. Something lurched in his chest then, like a muscle spasm. After that, he began to pay special attention to her, noticed how quick she was to laugh and how she stood up to him in a way the other women did not.
Since Coomi lived in the same neighborhood as Rusi, he had seen her around for years. But until they were in their twenties, they had never exchanged a word. Coomi was never part of the group of boys and girls Rusi had been friends with his whole life. It was only after Coomi met Sheroo Mistry in college that Sheroo brought her into the group. Still, Rusi never paid her much attention. At that time, he had a crush on Tina, a voluptuous girl with fierce dark eyebrows and lips soft as red cushions. Tina was a wonderful cook, and every Sunday Rusi went over for lunch to eat Tina's legendary chicken dhansak, under the watchful eye of Tina's father and hovering great-aunt. "Here's a nice fat piece of chicken. Eat more, na, Rusi," the girl would urge him, heaping more of the delicious rice and spicy daal onto his plate. In this way, Rusi figured out that Tina liked him. But when he tried to talk to her about how he felt, she would giggle and move away from him. "Enough, na, Rusi. All you boys want to do this kissy-koti, only. I am a girl from a good family, baba." One Sunday afternoon, smarting from having lost a bid for a job and fired by the determination to try even harder, he poured his heart out to Tina. But the fire of his ambition singed her. "Hey, Rusi, stop this crazy big-shot talk, yaar," she said. "I swear, sometimes you scare me. Why are you always wanting what's not there? Everybody says you are a show-off, and they are correct." Her words hurt him more than they'd any right to. His mouth suddenly tasted of dry ashes and the Sunday meal lasted forever as he went through the motions of praising Tina's cooking and making small talk with her father. When he left that day, his heart was cold. He never went back.
Coomi was different. He felt she understood him, understood that all he had were his dreams. Even when she teased him, there were places she never went to. "It's funny," he once said to her. "You are the only person I know who is not afraid of my dreaming. Even my mamma sometimes looks at me like I'm mad." She looked him right in the eye, then. "I'll be afraid the day you stop dreaming," she said seriously. He knew at that moment that he would someday marry her, that he had found a woman who would carry his boat to the shore.
So many hopes we had, he now thought. Each one of them dashed. What happened? Why did we let it? Would it have been different if Mamma had not lived with us? So many of our early quarrels had to do with Mamma. Or maybe I really did have an unrealistic expectation of marriage, like Soli says. "Too many Hollywood movies you are seeing, bossie," his best friend, Soli Contractor, always told him. "After all, what do you expect? That all bloody women will be Ingrid Bergman, or what?"
After all these years, it came down to this: They were different. After marriage, Coomi showed a side he'd never seen before. She could be moody, cruel, caustic. And since he had never grown some essential layer of protective skin, her words directly pierced his bones, settling there like cancer. Coomi used words like razors, as weapons with which to cut. To Rusi, words were like the offerings of sandalwood he took to the fire templescented, delicate, beautiful. Coomi always claimed that the words she said in anger were pieces of paper that flew away once they left her mouth. But to Rusi, they were poison darts, powerful enough to destroy a man.
Coomi had grown up with several older brothers, all of them big, burly men whose favorite pastime was cutting one another with an insult or a crude quip. Rusi was an only child, raised by a genteel widowed mother whose only mode of chastisement was a disappointed silence. Hurts stuck to Rusi like fat to the ribs. Rusi's warehouse of resentments bewildered Coomi. But he was devastated by his wife's careless, cruel words. He was especially hurt when those words were directed toward his mother. Coomi tried to tell him she didn't mean what she said in moments of rage, that her temper flashed and died out like a match struck in the wind. He tried to tell her that he was a different kind of man, that he felt defenseless against the gust of her anger.
Excerpted from Bombay Time by Thrity Umrigar. Copyright © 2001 by Thrity Umrigar. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.