By Shevlin Sebastian
Roy Joseph felt a rage rising in him.
At eight o'clock on a Monday morning, a woman flashing a thick, gold ring on one of her fingers, knocked on the Joseph’s door in Kochi. Mariamma was a friend of Lalitha, his wife. They had been childhood friends in the town of Changanacherry, 100 km away. She still lived there with her husband, who worked in a bank, and had come to Kochi to do some shopping.
The two friends sat in the living room and talked. Roy sat in the bedroom on an armchair near the window, clad in a white vest and blue lungi, and read the ‘Indian Express’. The conversation in the other room suddenly caught his attention. He leaned forward to listen more clearly.
"He’s a scarecrow!" Lalitha said, in a loud voice.
"What do you mean?" Mariamma asked.
"My husband is frightened of me because physically I am much more stronger. And so when we are in bed and he sees my naked body, he withers up instead of getting excited."
"Are you trying to say he is impotent?" Mariamma asked, giggling loudly.
"Impotent is not the word," Lalitha said. "Totally dead is the word. Can you imagine men can be like this? Weak. Effeminate. They should have been women instead."
Roy fell back into the armchair as if he was physically pushed. The newspaper slipped through his limp fingers. His mouth opened wide, as he gasped for air. He could feel a shame and an anger rise up like bile in his throat. He wanted to vomit, all of a sudden.
It was an insult but what Lalitha said was true. He was impotent and frightened of his wife, even though he was 42 years old, just as he had been of his domineering mother. He got up and, with wobbly legs, went to the door. He needed to put a stop to the gossip immediately.
Pushing aside the curtain, he said in a quivering voice, "Lalitha, oh…ah…please set the breakfast."
Lalitha sat on the sofa, one fat leg placed over the knee of the other, and chewed a guava; her double chin quivered with the effort. Without even looking at her husband, she replied, in a flat tone, "I'll decide when to make the breakfast."
Roy's hand, which gripped the curtain, trembled. He gripped it even more tightly, to prevent it from shaking. He wanted to avoid the eyes of Mariamma, who was plump like Lalita, with rolls of fat around her mid-riff and lumpy shoulders, but involuntarily, he looked at her. She did not laugh, but the crinkles at the corner of her eyes and a tightening of her lips, suppressing a hint of a smile, showed her reaction.
It was as if she had stripped him nude and laughed at what she saw.
Roy stumbled back into the bedroom.
He was getting late. Eventually, Lalita set the breakfast of tapioca and fish but he had to eat it in a hurry. Mariamma remained in the drawing room watching television, changing channels listlessly with the remote. He knew that once he left, they would continue their vicious gossip about him but there was nothing that he could do about it.
He came out of the house, in his trademark white shirt and dhoti and leather slippers, his black hair, including the bald crown, shining with the coconut oil that he had rubbed in, just after his bath. He hurriedly opened his umbrella, to protect himself from the blazing May sun. A vein throbbed at the side of his forehead and a shiver ran through his body. His mind was filled with violent thoughts about his wife. He began clenching and unclenching his left hand. He wanted so much to be a man and yet he had always been defeated by his impotence.
He sidestepped chattering schoolboys, with their overweight khaki bags on their backs, but a vegetable seller pushing a wooden cart with wobbly tyres almost hit him. "You blind fool," the man shouted, but Roy did not hear anything.
He reached the main road and looking swiftly to the left and right, he crossed it and entered a narrow street. Near the end of the lane stood a singled storied building, with a red tiled roof. He entered the sandy courtyard, closed the umbrella, and went up the steps to the ground floor office.
"Ten minutes late," said Krishnan, a colleague, with a sardonic smile. A fastidious Brahmin, with a red tilak mark at the centre of his forehead, he was never late.
Roy placed his umbrella on top of the filing cabinet. He re-tied his dhoti, and hastily drank a tumbler of water that was placed, on a round rubber mat, at the corner of the glass-topped table. A buzzer sounded. He was called.
The lawyer, Ramakrishnan Nair, who sat behind a broad wooden table, strewn with half-open files, was fat and pot-bellied. Like his wife, he also had a double chin. He held a Wills Classic cigarette between his fore and middle fingers of his left hand. Smoke trailed in a spiral towards the ceiling.
"What is this?" he said, gesturing with his stubby forefinger at the report that was in front of him, "you call this a preparation?"
Roy stood, in front of the desk, his fingers entwined, as if he was praying, and stared at his feet.
"You know this is a very important case for the firm. How could you prepare it so shabbily? The arguments...you have not done any research at all...this is stupid. There is no time!"
Roy bit his lower lip.
"You have any family problems," Nair asked.
"No sir," Roy said, still not looking up.
"Buck up man!,” Nair shouted. “I want this to be the last slip-up. Understand?...Now get out!"
Roy silently picked up the report from the table, turned and walked out. His face was impassive, as if he was used to getting his dignity ripped off now and then. He sat down behind his table and closed his eyes. He needed a period of silence but Krishnan’s voice pierced through: "What Roy? Got a dose this morning!"
"Shut up, will you?" Roy said, resignedly, as he rubbed his forehead, with his fingers...
The sun had set when he came out of the office. He walked down the deserted street to the main road and quailed at the thought of going home. He would have to listen to Lalitha’s nagging which carried on non-stop. It got on his nerves and became a torture during holidays, when he could no longer escape to the office. And today was a bad day, what with Lalita telling Mariamma that he was impotent and his boss shouting at him. He needed some space for himself and decided to go for a walk on Marine Drive, which was just two kilometres away.
The breeze blew strongly as he approached the Drive and lifted his collar flap up and down. The place was crowded even though it was a weekday. Frail old men, their hands and legs trembling, leant on their wooden walking sticks, laughing children ran past with their fussy, overweight mothers giving chase, grinning young men in jeans and t-shirts sat beside their coy girlfriends, munching groundnuts from small cone-like paper packets. He walked on and reached a section opposite Foreshore Road, that was deserted and quiet. He grinned suddenly and with his mouth, caught the collar and nibbled the edge.
He felt strange, as if he did not belong to his body. He sat down on the cement ledge, his legs dangling above the water, and stared at a ship that was anchored some distance away. He could see the black hull rising out of the water, the orbs of light from the portholes and a few men in white overalls, and long brooms, moving around on the deck, sweeping carefully.
All of a sudden, he heard a cry from further down the sidewalk and saw three young men dragging a woman, in her early twenties, towards a white Maruti van that was parked nearby.
One of them put his palm over the girl's mouth as she struggled, twisting her head violently from side to side. Her saree had slipped off her shoulders and her large, round breasts, under a red blouse, were heaving upwards, with the terror and fear.
Roy ran without thinking, into the group, fists flailing. For a moment, the men were disconcerted but then realising that he was middle aged and alone, they moved in.
One youth, with curly hair and with rippling biceps caught Roy by the shirt buttons and punched him in the stomach. Roy let out a mouthful of air, as his body bent forward.
His face presented another target to another young man, with bloodshot eyes, who smashed his fist against the bridge of Roy's nose. Blood spurted out from a cut. Roy landed in a crumpled heap on the sidewalk. As he passed out, he heard, as if from very far away, the accelerating sounds of the van. For a long while, he lay spread-eagled on the sidewalk, his open mouth pressed against the dust. His white shirt was stained by drops of blood and dirt. He pushed himself up. His spectacles, with one of the lenses having several cracks on it, hung precariously over his nose. He folded it and placed it carefully in his pocket.
He stumbled back to the ledge and, with eyes closed, he groped around for his umbrella, with his feet, making circular motions. Later, he took out his handkerchief and swabbed his face. The blood had coagulated in his nose and there was a dull, buzzing pain.
Tears formed in his eyes as a helplessness assailed him.
Here he was, a mere research assistant for a lawyer, a timid man, physically and mentally fragile, and he began to cry. Nothing made sense any more. For as long as he could remember, he had been impotent and had been unable to satisfy his wife. He masturbated in the bathroom, before his morning bath and managed, on rare occasions, to get an orgasm. But his wife, unhappy and frustrated, nagged him all the time. His body shook with the sobs; his crying seemed to come from somewhere deep within him. It was dark now, except for street lamps lighting up small sections of the road. He wiped his eyes with a handkerchief and got up. He could feel a pain in his stomach even as his nose continued to throb with the pain.
Roy began walking, with weary steps towards the road, his folded umbrella under his arm.
He reached an auto rickshaw stand and gratefully got into one, and leaned back, his head resting on the top of the seat and closed his eyes and mind to the blaring of car horns and the rumble of the buses. He could feel a tiredness creeping upon him. Fifteen minutes later, he reached his ground floor flat house near the high court.
He knocked on the door and Lalitha let out a gasp when she saw him. She took him by the arm, and made him lie down in the bedroom and took off his shirt. He stared at the swaying cobwebs at the corner of the white ceiling. Without his spectacles, the image was diffuse and vague.
"What happened?" his wife said. Her voice sounded harsh and loud to his ears.
"I was hit by a man," Roy answered.
"How?" his wife asked, as she placed a piece of cotton over the opening of a Dettol bottle and turned it upside down.
"Some young men were trying to kidnap a girl and I tried to save her," Roy said, as Lalita began dabbing on his cuts.
"You tried to save her," she asked incredulously.
He nodded and she began to laugh.
"I can't believe it," she said.
By now, she had realised that his cuts were not very serious and the familiar contempt was back in her voice.
"I can't believe it," she repeated, as she started to dab his face once again, "since when did you get so much of courage or was it that you lusted for the woman who was being kidnapped? But what's the point, since you can't get it up anyway."
Roy did not reply. Instead, he stared at his wife, at the lips that were sullen and thick, at the puffed-up cheeks, at the eyes that showed so much of scorn for him. A sudden repulsion arose in him.
"So you thought you would become a superman?" she continued relentlessly, "For thirteen years, you were nothing of the sort, you could not even give me a child."
She laughed dryly. The sound grew more and more irritating to his ears. He began clenching and unclenching his fists. His face muscles started to twitch and then he giggled.
Lalitha stared at her husband with a puzzled look.
"You dare to laugh at me," she said, "You impotent wreck, how can you call yourself a man?"
Roy did not care any more. He looked at his wife with enlarged eyes, his smile fixed and obnoxious.
His wife, half-angry and half-puzzled, went on relentlessly: "What have you achieved after working for so many years? Nothing! We are still in the same small flat. You are still in the same position and nothing has happened.
"Do you know what Mariamma's husband is now? He is an officer in the Federal Bank and he started out as a peon. He is a man, not the impotent specimen that you are."
The smile froze on Roy’s face and he twisted his lips to one side. He pushed away the hand of his wife and got up from the bed. He could feel his heart beating powerfully now. The blood went to his head and he blinked, as if to see clearly.
He stood still for a while, with his sunken chest and his stomach protruding over his dhoti. Then, bare-bodied, he strode towards the kitchen.
It was a neat room, with the gleaming steel utensils hanging on nails on the wall. He immediately spotted the plastic tray, with its bottom made of a mesh, on the sunmica topped counter; it contained spoons and forks and knives. He took the largest knife, and holding it chest high, with the tip pointed forward, he returned to the bedroom.
His wife opened her mouth to scream, but with superhuman effort, he pushed her onto the bed and plunged the knife into her chest.
She let out a cry of agony, which sounded like the wail of a cat, as her body convulsed and the blood started sprouting out in small jets and it fell on her purple saree and over his hands. He pulled the knife out again, as he sat astride her stomach and then gripping the knife with both his hands, he plunged it again, creating another tear on the breast. Again and again he plunged the knife till Lalitha lay still.
The warm blood now covered his hands and he began breathing through his open mouth. Perspiration blotted his forehead. There was a sheen of sweat all over his upper body.
Lalitha died, with her eyes open and with a strangled cry, Roy put his blood-stained hand over her eyes and closed them shut. He fell from the bed to the floor and began vomiting.
After that, he sat up and wiped his mouth with the back of his wrist. He stood up and stared at his powerless wife. A feeling of triumph arose in him. He realised that now he would no longer be tormented by her taunts and biting remarks. He would be at peace finally. He raised his arms aloft in triumph and laughed loudly. He ran up and down the room. Very soon, he was panting…
Much later, when the neighbours broke down the front door, they saw the astonishing sight of Roy lying on the floor and licking his own vomit.
Published in The Telegraph Colour Magazine)