Translating India: The Taste of Onion on His Tongue

When the sky deepens into shades of violet, I wait by my window. The street, so deserted in the afternoon, except for the mewling cats foraging in the bins, has come alive with bicycles jangling and auto rickshaws swerving around cars. I listen to the sounds of people rushing home. I smell dinners being cooked, a cloud of aromas hanging over the dusty streets – the clanging of metal pots and pans, the sizzle of spices, the waft of steaming rice – riding in the evening air.

I have nowhere to go. The last time I went out, I cremated my husband, and returned to this empty house. He left me when we were young and healthy and here I am, chained to this house by my inability to face the world. The wardrobe along with my silks and chiffons has been devoured by moths and mites. I wear this excuse of widowhood: a scrap of white cloth wound around my body. My body, once swelling like the mango in season, delectable, sweet, fragrant, has withered. Now the odour of my own decay clings to me all the time.

So I wait by the window, and watch other people. Especially him. His window is opposite mine. Just a sliver of street separates both our worlds.

They have been married ten years. He brought her as a bride to that flat. I was there, with the other women, ululating, showering rice and smearing vermillion on her forehead and welcoming her to her new life.

Last night he made love to her. The streetlamp made slanting patterns over their bed, and I watched the long shadows move on the wall. I gripped the sides of my bed and felt the tension in the pit of my stomach. His fingers, long like an artist’s, stroked me and his nails, trimmed every Sunday, scratched and made white marks on my skin. She moaned, and I cried, “Shut up, you whore. Disturbing the neighbours with your screams.” He shut the window with a bang. And I was left alone, unfulfilled, cheated out of my happiness, helpless.

He’s here. That’s the sound of his scooter. I shuffle to the kitchen, and warm my dinner. I heat up the lentils and rice, and pour them into a bowl. I slice an onion into four chunks and put it on a side plate. By this time, he is climbing up the five flights of stairs to his house.

Balancing the steaming bowl and sliced onions on the tray, I take my place by the window again. He’s removing his shirt. I cling to my dressing gown, smelling his sweat, my tongue outlining the sweat-circles on his sleeves. I taste the saltiness from his skin. He drops his clothes on the floor, and she picks them up after him.

She has found something in his trouser pocket. She is shaking it in front of his face. A bottle. It is the same story once again. A man needs his drink, especially if he’s married to a barren woman; ten years and no signs of a child. Thirty years, and the seed refused to bear fruit: I remember it only too well. So what if my body was oozing with lust, and my ripeness turned on the desire; the inside was a dry, wasted desert, where nothing could take on life. Those years sucked out our happiness. We made a charade of living together, knowing every single time the passion arose, there would be no result to those meaningless actions.

She is crying, and shouting at him. I hear her stinging words. They are an echo of mine. But I know better now; I know he needs it to forget what he cannot have. He takes a step forward and slaps her. I flinch. Forgive me, forgive me, I cannot help it. Don’t drink so much, it will take you away too. Like it took him. She moves away from him, face buried in her hands, shaking convulsively. He steps into the bathroom. Ten minutes. He’s going to wear the blue pyjamas tonight. The white pair is hanging on the clothesline outside the window, flapping in the evening breeze, dancing and teasing me to come and join him on that line. He sprays talcum powder on his back, his chest and under his arms. If only I could just reach out and touch his chest, and stroke it and lick the talcum powder, which looks like icing sugar. He combs his hair carefully, first patting it dry with a towel. His hair has thinned a bit more at the top. I want to run my fingers through and feel the moistness, and smell the freshness of his hair.

He looks at her, she is still crying. He wants to have his drink, but I know he has run out of Coca-Cola. She has forgotten to replace it. He is shouting at her, and she is trembling. She has to buy them now. He throws the empty plastic bottles at her, and she ducks. She goes out of the house and I sigh with relief. At last, I have him to myself for a while. I chew my meal slowly, and watch him cut onions. He likes munching them with his rum. I wonder what his breath would be like if he made love tonight. Pungent, acidic, sharp. I crunch into my onion, and chew slowly, letting the sharpness trickle down my throat. In the night, when I hear them move, I can whisper his name, and feel his pungent breath on my face, and taste the onions on his tongue.

She has returned. But she is empty-handed. She will never learn. He yells and she cowers. “Why, you stupid woman, are you messing up my evening?”

She turns away from him, and I can see her in the kitchen, stirring the pot vigorously, cursing him under her breath. He enters, with his bottle, and drinks it straight up. He then raises his hand and hits her from behind. I hold my breath. She nearly hits the pot bubbling with their evening meal. She turns off the gas and runs out of the room, while he staggers around, trying to control his movements.

Then he looks out of the window, his eyes turn to slits, as if peering to spot me in the shadows. He looks straight into my eyes. I tremble in the intensity of his gaze. I follow the movement of his lips.

“Crazy bitch,” he mouths and slams the window shut.

Susmita Bhattacharya was born in Mumbai and sailed the world on oil tankers before settling down in the UK. She is an associate lecturer at Winchester University and leads the SO:Write Young Writers workshops in Southampton. Her debut novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian), was published in 2015. Her short stories, essays and poems have been widely published and also broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She won the Winchester Writers Festival Memoir prize in 2016. She lives in Winchester with her family.

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