Excerpts from the story “Afternoon Sex”

Ravi works every day, for hours at a stretch. The first year we were together he made some sweet-tempered attempts at accommodating my presence into his schedule. He would try and work at our common table, putting his feet up and scribbling away on a notepad while I sat across, reading or thinking. If it didn’t work for him, he didn’t complain, but I found it tedious and oppressive. “The problem is I’m always working,” I finally explained. “I mean, when I’m alone with my thoughts. It’s work. I’m sure it is for you, also, when you’re alone with your thoughts.”

“Okay.” He smiled sagaciously, kissed me generously, and from then on has stayed in his quarters, generating a steady five hundred words a day, while I wander the house, wander the Internet, wander the city. I watch films, meet friends, listen to music, indulge my melancholies. I pick up my brushes on average once, at most twice, a month. When I do, by most accounts, I disappear for days at a time. I draw all morning and then eat lunch alone – Indian-Chinese ordered food, straight from the tub with a plastic fork, contemplating my easel. And then I paint. But just after sunset, I clean up. I rinse my tools, draw the curtains, lock my room – an old habit from the days of homes with no privacy. I shower lightly once, and then I start to cook. And when the meal is ready I shower again. I shave my legs, wear a dress, gems. I rim my eyes and, if it has dried, braid my hair with jasmine. Dinner, on days on which Ravi and I have both worked all day, is special.

One of the little things I love the most about my husband is that he hums before he wants to kiss me, especially if this occurs at a less than obvious moment. I think it is a sort of expression of shyness, of which he is probably totally unaware. I learnt to read it very early in our relationship, and it is an observation I keep to myself, a little delight. If he believes that I want to kiss him as much as he wants to kiss me, he is right. There is never a wrong moment.

The pleasure of preparing a meal for the man one adores. For Ravi, I de-shell every prawn individually, because he talks while he eats, and chokes on them. I slide a nail into the crease at each underbelly, devein it of the black intestinal cord. I toss fennel and mustard seed into oil, curry leaves, boil the prawns then introduce them into a simmer pungent with onions. I turn bitter gourd sweet by caramelizing it in jaggery. I steep the rice with coconut milk, a signature ingredient. I peel and slice an avocado, smother it in honey from a mangosteen orchard, and leave the confection in the freezer. For Ravi, anything.

I cover each dish with a lid, slip into the bedroom, blow him a kiss when he looks up from his book. I bathe and perfume and paint myself. When I come out, he is waiting by the dresser with the strand of rose quartz he had given me for my most recent birthday. This is our ritual: I watch us in the mirror, a woman whose eyes become like light on water as her beloved loops a rosary of his devotion around her neck.

He chooses the ornament, and to it I match the outfit. Tonight, a gray sheath dress with a pink ribbon at the waist. I admire myself for a moment or two before going out to join him.

In our house, we go barefoot. I wear the metti, the silver matrimonial toe-rings, because I love their weight, and I love the way they clink against tiles when I walk. I tinkle my way toward him as he stands by the kitchen counter, slip my arms around him from the back, sniff a kiss into his spine. He hands me my plate, already laden with the food I have cooked. “Thank you, my love,” I say, and tiptoe to kiss his cheek.

“Thank you,” he says. “Look at what you’ve made for us.”

“My pleasure,” I say. By which I mean, “My privilege”.

This is not the trajectory I had been on; this was not the life I should have had. I am grateful for it in ways that I am incapable of expressing adequately.

“When do we get to see what you’ve worked on today?” he asks between bites. I like watching him eat. My husband eats passionately, as though he has hungered a long time and then finally been allowed to partake. On his plate, curd and curry mingle with the dark sauce of the jaggery, and he scoops and licks the pulp from his fingers with relish.

“I’m estimating three days. It’s acrylic, so it won’t take long. It should be done by tomorrow, if I work at the pace I did today, but I’m leaving a little legroom.”

“What is it?”

“The Vasundhara commission.”

“Ah,” he says, in a way that means, “remind me.”

“Something for their guest bedroom, not too large. A 30 x 30, to go above a corner table. Her brief said the female form, a suggestion of rainclouds, red lotuses.”

“Sounds like calendar art.”

“Exactly why she thought of me.” I grin. I am an indolent painter with a better reputation than she deserves. I love my art and will fight for it as all artists do their own. But I like, even foster, the slight incredulity I have toward my career. It keeps me grateful. Ravi smiles. He is the most unassuming genius I know. It is because of his humility that the concept even occurred to me as a trait to cultivate.

“I can’t wait to see it,” he says, and I know he means it. We run this household together as equals: his books and journalism bring in a bigger income than my paintings do, but I make up the difference by managing daily administration. Apropos of neither, we share a deep mutual respect for the other’s work. This is what I value: that we are a household that creates, not destroys.

“You are in charge of the mundane and the miraculous, both,” he had said to me once, as we made up over one of the domestic disputes that chequered the initial stages of our living together. That was the year of the dishcloth, I joked to someone once. But really it was the year of deliverance.

The mundane and the miraculous, he said. But I had married Ravi because he was the miracle. I was a train wreck; he was the railroad switch.

He had gifted me normalcy, routine, security. He had lifted me out of the abysmal chaos of my life and allowed me to occupy his.

I ladle more bitter gourd for myself, refill his tumbler with chilled water, and contemplate the notion for a moment.

Marriage as occupation. Occupation: the principal vocation of one’s life. The source of one’s livelihood. The state of being occupied.

To occupy: to take over, to fill the whole of, to possess, to seize, to invade.

He believes I am not ambitious enough, but I suspect these things are easy to say for a man in his place. When he was 29, the same age I am now, Ravi’s first book won an important international prize. Publishing in India wasn’t then what it has now become. The book changed his circumstances and freed him to write whatever he chose. It allowed him to lend his voice to causes that moved him. It eased his life. I am not sure what an equivalent meteoric rise for a woman painter today may be. Perhaps there has never been such a thing.

Besides, for a long time I have harbored the misgiving that major success would discomfit me. I am happy to paint for myself, for my small circle of patrons, and where my name or my work has resonance beyond my association to my famous husband, I am happy to go.

I am fulfilled in profound measure by my smaller persona, my relative obscurity, my secret lives. The sum of them is more than enough.

(A renowned journalist, writer and columnist, Sharanya Manivannan is poet of the popular anthology Witchcraft (Bullfighter Books, 2008). An awardee of the Elle Fiction Award 2012 and as well as a nominee of Pushcart prize, she is currently working on a book of stories The High Priestess Never Marries as well as manuscripts of new poems titled Bulletproof Offering and Cadaver Exquisito.)

used to be brilliant. Now she's mostly a belle-lettrist.

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