A sunny day in Kovil Street. The first thing you notice is the dirt. Second, the abundance of people and flies. The pookaari was in a violent debate with her middle-aged customer. An auto was recklessly parked in the corner of the street, obstructing movement of other vehicles. Three little kids, all ugly, were trudging their way to school. Someone said “dai erumai”, but the owner of the voice was untraceable. A buffalo, its behind covered with its own filth, made its way to a dump and gave a loud grunt before beginning its morning meal. In the narrow lane, the salty wind carried with it the stench of garbage and the smell of piping hot idlis. But there was a whiff of jasmine whose sudden appearance coincided with the ringing of temple bells. She was in half-sari. She left with half of me. Evanescence…
The year is 2014. A revisit of the memory of my first encounter with Janaki Ramanathan was triggered by the smell of two warm idlis served with coconut chutney at a small Tamil hotel somewhere in East Ham. I should confess here that I have never tried to suppress Her memory. The letter ‘J’, Her name on a billboard, Bharatanatyam, Jaadu Teri Nazar, chappati-dal, the words ‘Love’, ‘She’ and ‘Her’, women with long, dark hair, my high school, orange juice, all these and some other things reminded me of Her. But with these objects, it was a conscious act of recollecting the past. How can you be sure of yourself when some part of your mind conjures the most uncanny connection between inanimate objects in the present and the past, ascribing nonsensical value and meaning to them, and provides you pleasure when you least demand it?
A memory that has no power does not obstruct the flow of routine. I could not help thinking about Her, holding Her as an evaluating A memory that has no power does not obstruct the flow of routine.standard, every time I tried to enter into a relationship with someone else, with the result that every affair I had up until now being of a fleeting and frivolous nature. They had nothing in common with Her. Kayla, the Romanian amateur pianist whose grandparents had fled their country during Communist rule, Amala, a Tamil liberal who exuded an unadulterated raw animal sexuality and who, as I found out within a week, belonged to a species of political animal much different from myself, Sharanya, my flatmate’s ex-girlfriend, a Malayali who had been born and brought up in New Malden… I found out through these and other short-lived connections that one of the most irritating things in the world, especially if you are romantic, is to hear the words ‘I love you’, words you associate with one person alone, addressed to you from people for whom you have only indifference for.
I also find it strange that, unlike with the other women I knew, I never associated Janaki with a particular identity. She was complete by herself, an absolute, a universe. My Love for Her was different from agape, unconditional Love for a God who in turn unconditionally loves you; it was more like bhakti, the Love for a God who was mostly indifferent to your plight. The Sangam poets charted out five landscapes to explain different feelings of Love. However, they could not suggest any landscape for unrequited Love, or kaikkilai. I suppose it happens at the domain of pure chaos where the only thing you can be sure of is an overbearing sense of loss, which, of course, cannot be described in words. Marx called unrequited Love a misfortune. He was right. But he was insipid to consider it impotent.
I could not eat more than a single idli.
I marry my colleague, Dr. Tiara Kelly, of Irish-Japanese parentage, with whom I co-author three books, several journal articles, and to whose merciless criticisms I owe “My comrade, colleague, critic, companion and confidante”the best of my own books on politics and philosophy. Saving European Pasts, my controversial third book is dedicated to her –“My comrade, colleague, critic, companion and confidante”. We fight over Freud and Zizek, laugh over Moliere and Peacock, and drink to Frank Sinatra and Julie London. Aping Sartre-Beauvoir, we spend hours apart at our work, then hours together at a Cafe at King’s Cross or at a secluded spot in Hyde Park, then hours apart in our private study, then finally together, in bed. And of all the women I have
had sex with, Tiara is the only one I have made love to. There are a hundred reasons for me to love her. And owing to the presence of reasons, I am unable to love her.
On her 44th Birthday, after a quiet family dinner at home, Tiara tells me that she loves me. I go down on one knee, eliciting peals of laughter from her and Minerva, our daughter, and I tell my wife, without hesitating to ponder on the veracity of my statement, that I love her. She believes it. I read it in her almond eyes. I believe it too. A sensation around my solar plexus confirms it. Later in the night, an unusually frantic love-making session follows a casual peck I lay on Tiara’s peculiarly attractive nose. The way our bodies intertwine in furious attempts to destroy even the slightest of distance between them, it is as though one found something in the other that one had been searching for an eternity, something beyond the limits of history and experience, something that must not be lost. But we knew that we had already lost our identities. Maybe there really was no identity to begin with.
I watch her drift into comfortable slumber by my side but I am still restless. With her perspiration still on my body, I put on some woolens and I go down to our garden to have a smoke. Snow-flakes were falling and there was already a white sheet over our finely trimmed lawn. I loved her.
I say it out aloud to feel the exquisite pressure of the words on my tongue.
“I love her.”
“I Love her.”
“I Love Her.”
I sense a whiff of jasmine in the icy winds of London that caress me on this solemn night.
18-7-2006. Chennai. Sardar Patel Road signal. Turn Right. Wine shop. Reality. Memory. His-story. Above.
18-7-2006. Chennai. Sardar Patel Road signal. Turn Left. Beach. Alternate Universe. Imagination. Short Story. Below.
The year is 2014. A visibly pregnant Janaki opened the door. She was wearing a plain blue housecoat and her long, dark hair, tied in a French-braid, was tossed over her left shoulder and it cascaded over her breast and ended near her navel, just the way she wore it in high-school.
“Why late?” she asked in her perennially husky voice. Before The Lover could answer, she continued questioning, but now lowering her voice to a whisper. “Dei. Did you have a party tonight?”
“Jaan, I promised you…”
December 2012. Their marriage was a traditional Hindu wedding with all the fire and the mantras and etc., etc. Janaki’s father was nowhere to be seen in the wedding hall, a little disappointment for the newlyweds, one that was soon put to flight by the merry antics of their friends. On that night, the tired couple, both virgins, who had not gone beyond kissing and a little making out in their five and-a-half year relationship, whose only encounters with sex had been porn and/or Sidney Sheldon, fumbled with each other, laughed, joked, pinched, pulled and pushed, and finally when they got it over with, were too exhausted for further activity and went to sleep in each other’s arms, smiling.
The Lover had been in love with her ever since 2002, from high school years, from, according to his claims, a day when He liked Eminem and she adored Michael Jackson.he had seen her in a half-sari near a temple in South Chennai. She said “yes” to him on 2 May 2007 while returning home from a mutual friend’s birthday party. In the first few years of their relationship, their favourite hangout places were Bessie beach, Amethyst, Sathyam Cinemas, and Citi-Centre. They talked about Cricket, a subject about which The Lover hitherto had no idea but eventually developed an interest for, the sole reason being that she was passionate about it, Tamil and Hollywood cinema, occasionally Hindi cinema, her dance practice, their careers, Dan Brown, Mani Ratnam… They had polar opposite tastes as far as English music was concerned. He liked Eminem and she adored Michael Jackson. He found it hilarious when she broke down when Jackson died but he did not laugh for the fear of offending her. But for some odd reason, she had no taste for Hindi music; once, fully drunk, he called her in the middle of the night and sang “Jaadu teri nazar, khusboo tera…”
“Dei erumai. Let me sleep.” Disconnect. He called her in 2017 from New York to inform her that the hedge-fund company he was working for extended his professional training (compulsory for all Senior Analysts) period by a month and thus, he would be unable to make it to her younger sister’s wedding. “Good for you,” she says. Disconnect. By 2019, what was once passion became habit. Disconnect. They moved to a bigger house in Nilangarai in 2022, and it was in the master bedroom of this house that they would have sex for the last time a year later. Disconnect.
She dies a painless death in her sleep at the age of 74. He dies a few months later in similar fashion. His two sons who had settled in the States, their families, three grandchildren, several relatives, colleagues and friends made it to his funeral in Chennai. He had been a providing father, a loving granddad and a nice sociable chap in general. The nurse who had attended to him in the last days of his life informed his sons that his last supper was a plate of piping hot idlis. What she did not know was that the minute his olfactory nerve picked up its smell, it triggered a memory of a sunny day in Kovil Street…