The performance was a stunning success and the applause thunderous. “My life is complete,” thought Elisa to herself, resplendent as Aandal, in Aandal Charithram or The History of Aandal. Her heart was literally exploding with excitement and exhaustion after the weeks of grueling rehearsals. She looked around for familiar faces and found them beaming in different parts of the front row of the auditorium and smiled back at them gratefully. Try as she did, at this point she could not find the smallest imperfection in her immaculate life. Elisa felt like she had achieved everything that she had always desired. She could see her parents smiling proudly, there was Meena and a few seats behind them sat Daljit. He still did not communicate directly with her parents although he was now an uncomfortable reality that they accepted.
Daljit was like a lumpy pillow that her parents half-smilingly and grudgingly learned to lay their heads on because the daughter that they adored had presented it to them. They didn’t say anything when he came to pick her up at home instead of meeting her somewhere as he used to in the past. They also did not ask any questions when Elisa said that she was not coming home on some evenings or when she went away on weekend trips. It was now a year since Elisa’s trip to San Jose and Meena was greying into a graceful old woman, devoted to Elisa as she had been to Savithri. Neither Elisa nor Meena spoke about the wrong that Savithri had done to Grace. Elisa preferred to forget it as she had too many dear memories of Savithri while Meena was just silent about it. When Elisa had first returned from San Jose she had thought of asking Meena if she knew anything at all about Grace or what happened at that time. But Meena had not volunteered anything and Elisa felt that it was just too unkind to ask her since only Elisa and her parents existed in her world while Savithri stood in the background like an enormous deity. So the matter was simply left to rest forever. In any case, Elisa’s performances kept her mind off of everything. Since her return from San Jose, she had been kept busy not only in Malaysia but also outside the country. Elisa looked forward to the overseas trips for two reasons. One reason was that it gave her the exposure and the opportunity to expand her performance schedule and the other was that it gave her guilt-free time with Daljit who almost always accompanied her even if it was just for two or three days.
As much as she had grown comfortable with the awkward understanding with her parents, she still felt guilty about the fact that he was married. The reality of his marital status became murky, at least in her mind, when she was with him in some foreign country. She completely discarded her guilt and the need to be discreet when she was overseas. There were still some places to which Daljit and she could not go in Kuala Lumpur because it was either frequented by his family or by the family of his wife Sara or her friends. Elisa accepted this as a part of their relationship but it was occasionally irksome. Elisa did not ask Daljit about his wife and he did not volunteer any information either. Elisa knew he had a child who was now almost five, a child that had been born before he had reignited his relationship with her. Once when she did ask him about his wife and child he had simply said he stayed married to Sara for the sake of his child.
“Such a load of crap,” Seok Chin had exclaimed hotly when Elisa had told her this. Seok Chin was Elisa’s friend from elementary school. They had lost touch in the years that Elisa had gone away to India and then to the US but had met again at a school reunion. “My husband and I have amicably agreed to lead completely separate lives, although we still live with each other,” was Seok Chin’s declaration when she began filling Elisa in on the missing years. “You know it’s nonsense, Elisa. How can you accept that from him?” Seok Chin had asked hotly, her eyes flashing. Elisa had laughed at Seok Chin’s passion. The two were at lunch in a restaurant in Bangsar amidst a bustling lunchtime crowd. “Well, I like him and I always have. There was always that thing about race and religion and all of that and I could never do anything about it. Not that all of that is not there now but for now, I am lonely. I am not inclined to get married again and Daljit is just there.” “So what are you saying? You are using him?” demanded Seok Chin looking at Elisa directly in the eye. “Like I know he is using me,” said Elisa shrugging and trying to get a piece of spinach that was stuck between her last two molars with her tongue. “I don’t believe you, Elisa. I can’t believe you’ve changed so much from that sensitive person that you were in school. You sound so callous.” Seok Chin looked a little disappointed. “Look, I know this is not a relationship that is going to last forever. I know that. I am not an idiot. If Daljit had wanted to leave his wife he would have or he would have indicated something. But he hasn’t and I am not ever going to ask him to leave his wife. The way I look at it, I am lonely but I don’t want to go looking for someone. Daljit is there because he wants to be there. I did not do anything to start up the relationship. In fact, I don’t even call him as often as he calls me. Actually, most of the time I am returning his calls, and I do return his calls because I want to. I have never made any promises to him and he hasn’t promised me anything; that’s just not the way our relationship is. We are just there for each other, fulfilling a void that is obviously there in both our lives. If there comes a time when we have to part, I think we will, very amicably. I know that.”
Actually, the time for her to see if they would really part amicably came sooner than later. A week after her lunch with Seok Chin, she saw Sara, Daljit’s wife in a shopping mall. She looked six months pregnant. Elisa was at first unsure if it was indeed Sara because she had not really met her and had only seen her from a distance and from some photographs that Daljit had shown her in the early days. So she stood watching her for a while. It looked like she was shopping for baby clothes. A few minutes later, she saw Daljit’s sister, Dolly, joining the pregnant woman and then there was no doubt in her mind. As soon as she got home and shut the door to her room, she called Daljit and asked to see him. Strangely, the confidence and the self-assuredness that she had felt when talking to Seok Chin had quietly slipped out of her. In fact, she was a little shaken. Daljit had not once mentioned that his wife was pregnant. He had obviously not thought it was necessary for her to know. When they had met for the first time after so many years and after her divorce, he had talked about his marriage briefly and how he had married his wife on an impulse. “I had only known her for about six months. I didn’t know where you were or how to get in touch with you. I didn’t think your parents would have liked me to get in touch with you after your marriage. But I could not forget you. And, I still can’t.”
At that point in Elisa’s life, soon after her marriage, and most of all after the insults and humiliation she had suffered, Daljit was just the elixir she had needed. She had not thought much about the right or wrong of being with a married man and neither had she considered the future of the relationship. It had felt completely right when he had gathered her in his arms in the dark and kissed her. During their lovemaking that night, Elisa had discovered how passionate she could be. When she was married to Steven, all their lovemaking was initiated by Steven. Elisa was initially too shy and then later too afraid and finally too disgusted to want to be intimate with him. She had tolerated his demands like bitter medicine that had to be had every few days, and so she was stiff and unyielding and in fact more than once Steven had got off her after he was done, calling her a “frigid bitch.” “Haven’t you even read books on how to satisfy a man? I feel like I am having sex with a log.” Daljit, on the other hand, had been pleasantly surprised by her on their first night together. “My! My! Who would have thought?” he had laughed quietly in her ear in the dark and she had playfully punched his arm. His touch, his warmth, his smell was everything that she desired with the same fervor with which Steven had repulsed her, especially towards the end of their marriage.
Elisa and Daljit made love regularly and frequently because they both wanted it and enjoyed it. She secretly wondered sometimes though if sex was what kept their relationship alive. She looked forward to his company almost on a daily basis but it was true that he did not enjoy many things that she liked. She knew he came to her performances more out of loyalty then genuine interest. He had never shown any real interest in the arts and in fact when she asked him what he liked about her performance he would smile and say, “ You.” She liked his answer most of the time but there were times when she was a little irritated. Sometimes she found herself wishing that he knew more about the arts or that he read more. Daljit was a thorough businessman. When he wasn’t with her, he was in his office, “Making money,” as he would laugh. He did love parties and loud music, both of which she liked to a degree but more often than not endured, just to be with him. He saw these parties as essential tools for networking and she felt obliged to go along because he came to her performances. However, it bothered her that although she had to go to those loud parties to be with him, she had to pretend that she was not with him because he was married and he did not want it to be too obvious that he was having an affair. The pretenses would often result in squabbles afterwards. “You know I hate these parties and yet you force me to come along. And then I find it so bloody silly that I have to pretend to be with the girls or be by myself. Why do I have to be there anyway? Why don’t you go by yourself?” she would snap as soon as they were alone. “Well, I want to be with you but I need to go these parties as well. I come to all your dance things so why can’t you come to my parties…” and the quarrel would continue until both had sufficiently vented their irritation.
Sometimes Elisa would go home wondering if she even wanted to see Daljit again. “He is so boring sometimes,” she would say to herself. But almost in the same breath, she reassured herself, “But he is there, always there. I can always count on him.” There were days when she avoided him and busied herself like she was possessed so that she would not have to feel a void. But he would always call or turn up at her school and then she would fall back into the pattern of seeing him and being with him. Her weakness infuriated her but the comfort of her relationship with him warmed her and so she did nothing to examine her feelings for him until she saw his pregnant wife. “Don’t do this to me, Eli,” said Daljit softly, holding both her hands in his. “I have no explanation for the new baby. We, you and I, I mean, had no expectations of each other remember. Sara is a part of my life like you are. I need you and I want you,” he almost pleaded. The softness of his voice, the earnestness in his manner was weakening her but Elisa was steadfast in her decision. She wanted to end the relationship.
The sight of a pregnant Sara was enough to drive home the futility of their relationship. She turned to look at him with her cool, dark brown eyes, “You are right. There were no expectations and there shouldn’t be. I don’t see why I have to explain myself now. I don’t wish to continue with this relationship. I didn’t feel good about myself when I saw Sara and that is the truth of it, I felt unkind and cruel and I don’t like that feeling.” As much as she felt sadness and even a growing sense of loneliness, she felt sorry for him. He hadn’t used her. She had used him. He had clearly felt for her a lot more than she had for him. There were times when she had even wondered why she wanted to be with someone with whom she had so little in common. They had both enjoyed watching movies and the sex was good, and that was it. She did not understand his business and rarely asked him about it and she found many of his friends boring. But they did laugh a lot together about silly things and that had kept them going all this while. The pained look in Daljit’s eyes as he studied her face, communicated everything that he wanted to say. “I guess I know why you feel the way you do and I can’t do anything to change that, unfortunately. She is my wife but you are a part of my life that I would like to keep if it were just up to me. In fact, I feel you are a part of me from some other life…I don’t even know what it is. Every time I see you I feel like I have come home,” he said finally.
A gentle, steady drizzle began drumming on the car in which they were sitting. Except for the rhythm of the drizzle that was monotonous yet soothing, they both sat in silence, staring ahead of them, into the darkness. The park in which they were, was not too far from a busy thoroughfare in Petaling Jaya and so they could hear the hum of late night traffic. The air around them hung heavy with thoughts and emotions that would forever remain unexpressed as their futility was keenly felt by both the silent individuals. Daljit still held Elisa’s hand, afraid to let go. He had a sense that it was their last night together. Elisa gently removed her hand from his as she softly cleared her throat, like she was preparing to speak. “I think we both knew that there was no permanence in this. You could not have married me and I am not sure that you even wanted to. I would not have wanted you to leave Sara, in any case. I guess we got into it because we both had a need but I think we need to do the right thing at least now. I really cannot carry on anymore. When I saw your pregnant wife, I was filled with so much distaste for myself…” Daljit began to speak in an attempt to express his disagreement but Elisa shook her head firmly and continued. “No. I don’t want to pursue this relationship. It was wrong, to begin with, it is wrong now and it is never going to be right.”
Daljit shot Elisa a tormented look. He loved Sara in a tender warm manner, not unlike the way she had slipped into his life, unobtrusively and quietly. He had got to know her while working in a bank, a couple of years after he had lost touch with Elisa. Never really healed from his unsuccessful relationship with Elisa, he had merely grown accustomed to not having her in his life. And so Sara was like a balm. She had walked in and soothed his loss with her gentleness and her quiet reassuring manner. He loved her voice most of all, a husky, rich voice to which words clung like crumbs to honey. There was a certain sweetness to everything she said, even when she scolded. In fact, if he ever had to compare Elisa and Sara, there was just one thing about Sara that he liked better and that was her voice. Elisa’s was a little high-pitched at times, especially when she was emotional or excited. He loved Sara, there was no doubt about it. But he was crazy about Elisa. He had never stopped to think why or how or anything like that. She just completed him. But he knew her enough now to know that there was simply nothing he could say to change her mind.
Elisa stood in the light rain, watching Daljit’s car drive away. Oddly, she felt no sadness or remorse, just a little emptiness. She had known all along that this day would come and that was the reason why she had continued to see him despite knowing that her parents were unhappy and that many of her friends had disapproved. She had even quelled her own feelings of guilt whenever she had thought about Sara. She had known all along that she did not love Daljit. She liked him immensely and that was true. If he ever needed her help in any way she would be there but there was never a moment when she had wanted permanence in their relationship. Elisa couldn’t stop a hint of a smile as she entered her house that stood in darkness. For a moment she thought of the tiny crack that she had felt in the perfect image of Savithri. “I guess she was just human,” she told herself as she looked at the lone light that burned in the back room. She knew it was her father reading late into the night. Although he never admitted it, he was always up when she came home late, waiting up for her. “Is that you, Eli?” she heard him call out. She knew of one person who would be extremely happy when Daljit stopped calling.