Rigorous
Volume Two, Issue 1



The Couple

Jonaki Ray


I am half-awake when Babu kicks my back. I sigh and stretch. Babu may think he is my boss but he’s only the cook. I take my time putting on my white-turning to-yellow uniform, little knowing my life’s about to change.

The guests are called Mr and Mrs Roy. They are waiting at the reception with the manager, Manish Saab. Mrs Roy is wearing a ring and a dab of sindoor. Mr Roy has a ring on his third finger. The woman looks like a cold morning with her long, thin face and matching body. She has fine lines around her neck that make her appear to be middle-aged. The man is tall as well, perhaps six feet, but his height is offset by a round face and a paunch not completely hidden by his loose grey t-shirt and white shorts. A gap of at least ten years, if not more, between them, as per my estimate.

The way she stands at that moment feet neatly aligned, expensive handbag loosely clutched while she waits for him to deal with the staff makes it clear that she is moneyed and used to traveling. Her husband, on the other hand, fumbles at the desk with his wallet, “Yes, yes, we had booked online. And it was one of those cottages with double occupancy. What debit card? I don’t think…”

She intervenes, “Let me deal with this. Mr, ummm, Manish, I booked the place through Mr Raheja, your boss’s friend.”

Manish Saheb’s bald pate is gleaming with sweat, as it does when he’s nervous. He mumbles, “But, we can’t see the record in our data.”

She cuts through like a sickle, “I can’t help it if your system doesn’t work. We called Raheja a month ago and booked it. And I can show you my ID and credit card, so let’s wrap this up quickly, shall we?”

Manish Saheb stutters, “There is a deposit and the amount comes to…”

“Whatever it is, I can pay right now in cash as well. I just want to relax. We have had a long drive from Delhi.”

Manish Saheb wilts, “Yes, madam. I will just copy the ID and give it back to you.” He turns to me and says, “Bhiku, take the bags to the cottage.”

I bow—it always pleases the guest I have found—and take the bags up the hill. They have booked the largest cottage, which is up the hill, while the remaining cottages, the reception, and dining hall are nestled together at the bottom of the valley.

I open the cottage door and deposit the bags. The woman takes one look at the twin beds and says, “What is this? This is supposed to be a double bed. Can these be joined?”

I give her a sour look, but pull the beds together, while the man goes to the balcony and takes out his phone.

“Hello Ma, I just wanted to tell you that I have reached safely. Yes, this place is nice. I will talk to you later. My friends are waiting.” He finishes his call and steps back into the room.

Looks like these two are not married. Must be in one of those big city “live-in” arrangements. I have seen some other couples come here like that. And of course, I know all about how the city people live. As Premi always says, “You are such a smart man.” Ah, Premi! She is like a gulab jaamun-- round and dark, and knows just the right thing to say at the right time.

Madam, meanwhile, is going around the room. “Can you bring another set of towel and soaps? And, please, change these bed-sheets and pillow cases. I can’t believe this is supposed to be a luxury resort.”

“Yes, madam.”

She goes into the washroom. Mr Roy quickly punches a number on his phone, “Hi sweetie, what are you up to? Yes, yes, the red sweater is with me. I will call you once the conference is over. I miss you too.”

I go back down the hill and entertain Babu with the whole episode. I conclude, “Man, not just an old woman who is paying for his vacation, some other woman also dotes on him. Some people really manage their women well.”

“It’s all kismet, my friend. Look at my fate, I haven’t even seen my wife in three months. What is the point of slaving like this when one cannot be near one’s family?” Babu starts his oft-repeated lament.

Babu can go on in this vein for a long time. And I really don’t need to remember Premi and our two sons, and how I have also not met them for almost six months. “What to do? One has to do what one must.” I escape from the kitchen and take the fresh set of towels and linen from the store up to the cottage.

This time the mister opens the door.

“Come in. Can you change the glasses as well? And can we get some beer? Darling, do you want a beer?”

“No, I am good,” she replies from the chair where she sits checking her phone.

I start peeling off the bed-sheets and pillow cases, a chore I have always hated. First, untuck, slide and peel off the sheets and pillow cases. Then, do the whole thing in reverse with the new sheets and pillow cases.

The woman is now wearing a sleeveless, low-necked blouse and shorts. Her breasts are visible. They are like apricots—small and firm. My mouth turns dry and I quickly look at Mr Roy. He is also looking at them. In fact, he is staring at her as if she is a tasty piece of chicken he is going to devour after having kept a vegetarian fast for the last nine days.

But, she is looking at the sheets. “Hello? These sheets are so dirty. What are these yellow spots? Doesn’t this place have clean sheets?”

“Madam, these are fresh from the laundry,” I lie. I am not going through the whole change-the-bed-sheet thing again.

“Let it go, please,” interrupts the man.

“Why? These are so dirty.”

“He will change them later. Tu beer le aa. Get some beer. And get madam some red wine.”

I scuttle away while they are still arguing. Maybe, they are married.

I organize the beer and wine, making sure to dilute the beer with water after taking some sips. Babu, who takes up the beer and wine fifteen minutes later, reports all is well. “The husband had only a towel wrapped around his waist,” he winks.

*~*

They don’t come out until the next morning. The man struts like a peacock and orders two omelets and a pot of masala chai. She has two pieces of toast and a cup of black tea, which is not black enough and has to be made again for her.

Her dainty sips are in such contrast to the way Premi has her tea. She always pours the tea into a saucer and gulps it down with loud, chuski sounds, all the while chuckling at me who always needs to cool the tea first. And her tea—boiled to perfection, with fresh, ground ginger and honey— I resolve that I will take leave soon and go home.

After breakfast, Mr Roy says, “Let’s go back to the cottage first. And really, don’t buy anything for me. I insist,” in a mock-scolding tone.

“Oof, you are so difficult,” she frowns and smiles at the same time.

They disappear up the hill, arm-in-arm.

“It’s pretty obvious. She is a rich woman, and he is her boy-toy. She has a rich husband but he is no good in bed. So, she uses the money to get this diversion, while the real husband is traveling and working somewhere. I have heard about such things when I was working in Delhi.” Babu speaks like an old sage. Listening to him you would never think that he had only spent six months in Delhi. I snort to myself that he could be wrong about the whole scene, but don’t say anything aloud. After all, he is from my village and has got me this job.

Half-an-hour later, the room service call comes through. She wants someone to come and take her bag. I go up the hill quickly.

I can hear their voices clearly even though the door was shut.

He shouts, “I am so tired of this loop. I am telling you that I will get the divorce. You just have to trust me.”

“Trust you. How many more years do you want me to wait? And why should I continue with this charade? You don’t even have the guts to tell your mother that you are with a woman. Guy friends! What are you, a teenager!?”

“At least, I am not 45 years old, and desperate to get married.”

I can hear her shouting. “No, you are 32, and a good-for-nothing who has latched on to my hard-earned money from the company I set up from scratch. A bastard who has no problems putting my name as his wife, but has no intention of telling people we are together. And now, I find out that you have another woman. How many women are you cheating this way? I am going to ruin you now, just wait and watch.”

I ring the bell. Mr Roy opens the door. His face is flushed.

I catch a glimpse of the room—beds pushed apart, broken bottles on the floor, and a lone pillow crumpled on one of the beds— and then he says, “Come later,” and the door is slammed in my face.

I turn around to go back to my room. What is it to me, anyway? I can hear them crashing against the furniture again, and the sound of glass breaking. Manish Saab will ask me what happened. I tell myself I should walk away. But I find myself checking the door: it’s not locked. Maybe I can go and help her. She is obviously rich and will reward me. Besides, she needs someone to help her out. I fling open the door and rush in.

Mr Roy is getting thrashed soundly. The last thing I think before the beer bottle crashes on my head, “I am really not that smart.”


Jonaki Ray: "I am a poet, writer, and editor based in India. My poetry, essays, and short fiction have appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, Lunch Ticket, The Matador Review, So to Speak, Indian Literature, Sigh Press Journal, Coldnoon, The Four Quarters Magazine, The Wire, The Times of India, and elsewhere. My work is forthcoming in Rambutan Literary Journal.

"I am the winner of the First Prize at the 2017 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Contest in the EAL category, and a finalist in the 2017 IWR Writing Competition. I was longlisted at the 2016 Writers' HQ International Fiction Contest and for the 2016 RL International Poetry Award. I was also shortlisted for the 2016 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Contest in the ESL category.

"Honors for my work include being selected as a writer-in-residence at Joya:AiR, an inter-disciplinary residency program in Spain (Spring 2016); and La Macina di San Cresci, Italy (Summer 2017)."




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