Sunday, 4 December 2016

Tall Girl in the Rain
by RK Biswas

Amrita stood beneath the diffused orange glow of a rain drenched street lamp. Standing at five feet and ten inches in her bare feet, Amrita’s height was further elevated by her two-inch high formal black shoes, and she stood a good head taller than most of the people who waited alongside her to cross the road.  When the green man lit up, they surged across the glistening surface in a single fluid movement. Amrita moved with them, her face billowing above the mass of umbrellas and rain slicked heads.
It was the elongated hour of a December dusk, another wet day in a month of wind and water. One that held on to moisture like a precious gift, sharpening the scent of earth and foliage. The drizzle that fell on Amrita set her head ablaze with droplets that in turn reflected the colours of polished quartz. She bent forward to receive the rain before it could reach the files, protected inside a plastic bag, she clutched to her breast. She hurried, her feet almost skimming across the nearly liquid black stretch of road that reflected back the dark of her eyes.  In the wet light, she looked like a delicate preternatural creature almost flying across the black surface. Her mind however was too pre-occupied to notice the quick glances thrown her way. Besides, she did not think she was beautiful. Such an unusual height in an Indian woman is hardly considered an asset. Amrita had heard that so many times, sometimes from kindly and well-meaning relatives, but other times, mostly other times, from the vicious jibes that questioned her very femininity, her worthiness in the eyes of prospective grooms.
Amrita felt plain behind her spectacles and worked hard at being something; anything that could make her height less noticeable. She graduated, and then completed her masters in commerce. She did a course in fashion designing and afterwards, getting an opportunity to do an MBA at a good institute she joined that course as well. She worked at a designing house before her marriage, against her parents’ wishes. They feared that she would grow too angular as a career woman and subsequently be left on the shelf. But marriage did happen, to Amrita’s mother’s relief, and the disbelief of the smirking relatives and neighbourhood aunties, when Yash, the son of very distant relatives came to Delhi to visit his parents, and fell in love with the lanky girl he met at a family gathering. He joked that she was the only girl he’d met who could actually look him in the eye without tipping her head backwards. Amrita, diffident and suspicious at first, eventually gave in to Yash’s curly hair and quizzical eyes. Yash’s mother forbade Amrita to wear anything other than the flattest of flat-heeled slippers during the week-long wedding ceremony. Amrita would have continued wearing them had Yash not presented her with a pair of shiny stilettos right after their marriage.
Now Amrita clutched her precious papers, along with something else – a simple faith that at last, after marriage and two children and seven years spent in a country so cold that it seemed to have frozen forever her quietly friendly disposition, that now, when they were in Singapore, as close to India as a developed country could get, she could finally pursue the career that she had been putting on hold for so long.
Amrita almost ran. The feeder bus that would take her to the MRT station had already arrived. It was getting late, and the place was unfamiliar. The bus was already packed, but Amrita managed to squeeze in. She felt the drip of an umbrella on her already wet shoes. Damp warm bodies pressed and quickly moved away. Mumbled “sorries” and “excuse-mes” tumbled over shoulders and backs. It was a relief when the MRT station arrived. A draught of rain-kissed wind stroked her cheek as she alighted. This was familiar terrain. She went down the steps, almost keeping beat with the wind that spiralled down, reached the gates to the platform and inserted her pass.
She found standing space in the compartment which was filled to capacity. Her height gave her a direct view across the heads around her, so she was able to edge forward in time before her stop came. A recorded voice announced City Hall station had arrived above the hubbub of people. Amrita crossed over for the connecting train to Kembangan. This time she was lucky. There weren’t too many commuters, and she was able to find a seat immediately. Amrita slid off her pumps and rested her aching feet on the cool metal floor of the compartment; the touch soothed her and she twiddled her toes to enhance the feeling, and sank further into her seat. It would take a good twenty minutes before her station arrived.
Amrita and Yash had arrived in Singapore less than six months ago. She had yet to experience that settled in feeling. But they both agreed that Singapore had been far easier to get used to than the towns and cities of Yash’s earlier postings. Those other places had been beautiful and intriguing, but also aloof, possibly because Yash’s transfer orders had arrived sometimes within weeks of their settling in. So it had felt like they were on a perpetual journey of discovery as they moved houses in Spain, Germany, France and Switzerland, living for the barest of tenures there, just enough to savour their surroundings, like slow tourists before moving on to the next country, and the next and the next, until they reached Holland. The children were born in Holland, giving Amrita scope to grow into something, and discover qualities in herself that she hadn’t known before. They made a few friends among the Indian families, but the Dutch community remained out of reach and aloof. Yash had European colleagues who were friendly enough, but they didn’t socialise, except for the rare office gathering. Not being able to grasp the language, or reach out to the locals in the casual warm way that came so easily to them, they clung to each other, cradling the babies like delicate saplings whose roots could come apart any minute. Yash shared chores at home. They shopped together for groceries. They went to the houses of their Indian friends where everybody brought their kids. The years trickled past, through the unbearably cold winters and magical but too short summers. Now the boys were in primary school, and they were here, in the Far East.
Yash worked in a large multi-national company. Over the years he had risen in rank and grown senior enough for them to get a company paid transfer to Singapore, a house in a good locality and maid allowance. The last was an unheard of luxury in their earlier European postings, and Amrita took it to be a good omen. But Singapore was just struggling to recover from a recession, and the omen proved to be less potent than it had first appeared to be. Her initial confident hopes diminished within the first two months of her search. She grew doubtful about her own competence and eligibility.
The people she met during her job searches were polite, but noncommittal. When she returned later for definite answers she usually failed to meet the one who had interviewed her, and was once again left with a noncommittal response. This happened in places where her credentials were acknowledged before the person on the other side realized that she was not even a Permanent Resident of Singapore. It took Amrita a while to realize that Singaporeans were not comfortable with a direct, in-your-face negative answer. They considered it churlish to spit out an outright ‘no’. Their responses were often embedded in circumlocution, leaving her feeling perplexed, and sometimes humiliated. She hung on to a sliver of hope, and then felt let down when her queries remained unanswered. There were occasions however, when she did come across less traditional, more forthright people who told her, not unkindly, that they did not have a place for her.
Amrita scoured the pages of The Straits Times for job vacancies every morning. She diligently trawled the internet for openings. As the days passed, Amrita told herself determinedly that she would take up anything that came even remotely close to her core qualifications. She would not let any opportunity pass her by. Amrita gritted her teeth at this last thought, and an unshed tear gathered underneath her lashes. There was an acute hunger within her, to see herself as something other than Yash’s wife and the mother of his boys. 
Amrita turned her head to look out of the train as it hurtled like a gigantic metal worm on its metal path sometimes above the roads and sometimes below. The train was running overhead now and strands of rainwater chased each other down the pane, blurring the squares of cityscape that ran along her line of vision. She closed her eyes as she thought of the morning. The day had begun so pleasantly.
The sun shone in the sky, more like a polished brass plate than a fiery ball. The wet leaves wore a lilt of green where the sun had set his rays down to bask among the foliage after a night of rain. Broken twigs with Flame of the Forest, Queen’s Flowers and Frangipani lay scattered on the damp path across the park that Amrita used as a short cut to Kembangan MRT station. A fragrant vapour rose from the ground. The canal skirting the park gurgled forward, looking for once like a real stream instead of a beatified storm water drain.
There were mostly villas and condominiums skirting the park. It was a locality favoured by well-off locals and white expatriates or Angmoh, as the Singaporeans called them, with a few Indian families like Amrita’s thrown in between. Dogs and their owners walked at a leisurely pace, savouring the freshly bathed redolence of the Park. Amrita had three interviews on her agenda for the day, and that thought along with the prospect of Friday being only a night away filled her with a sense of well being. She smiled at a few whose faces had become familiar. They smiled back politely before turning away.
The venue for the first of the interviews was at Centre Point, and scheduled for ten thirty in the morning. It would take Amrita around forty minutes to reach, but she wanted to keep some buffer time and set off an hour ahead. Once she reached the Orchard Road MRT station, she walked quickly towards the mall where her interview was to take place. The interview didn’t last long enough to give her any hope. The lady who interviewed her, seemed kindly. She put her papers in a file with care and told Amrita to call back after a week. That was better than being told that they would get back to her. Amrita thanked her and went out. She walked around the mall to pass the time. It was too early for shoppers, and the sales staff sensing a window shopper, let her browse in peace as they settled in for a new day. By the time Amrita came out, the sky had darkened considerably. Lightning scattered static behind the buildings, and thunder splintered the sky in many places. The next two interviews were to take place after lunch. Amrita had time to kill until then.
Time is a hard task master when there are no tasks at hand, and Amrita felt a cloud shred itself from the sky and enter her, spreading over her heart like a damp cotton quilt. Bracing herself against the changing weather, Amrita walked up and down Orchard Road and back, eating a chicken wrap that she’d bought at a road side kiosk. She was lucky. Apart from a few spatters spread far and few, the rain held itself in check. The air around her had a zesty feel about it despite the growing crowd, and the damp quilt slowly began to ease itself out of her heart. Amrita strolled around without looking at her watch, observing the people around her. Most of them wore black suits, sometimes pin-striped with a lighter shade. She still hadn’t learned to distinguish between the Malays and the Chinese among those that wore western clothes, which in this part of Singapore was more common. Separating the expatriate Indians from the locals had never been a problem for her though. Amrita wondered at this as she watched the men and women come and go.
 Finally Amrita found herself waiting in the lobby of the office where her second interview of the day was scheduled. This company had a chain of clothes stores that sold their own lines of clothing apart from other more established brands. They had plans of expanding beyond Singapore. Amrita was excited about the interview. Her interviewer, this time was a man in his forties.
“Mrs Khurana?” He said looking at the door behind her.
Amrita got up to acknowledge her name, but he motioned her to follow him into his cubicle without making eye contact.
“So you need a job?”
Amrita paused. He had not even asked her to sit down. “I am looking for career prospects...”
The man grimaced. “They all say that. Times are bad. Everybody needs a job. If you don’t, you have no business to be here.”
“Sir, I did not mean ...”
“Please sit down Mrs Khurana. And, tell me why we should choose you. Convince me that we need you.”
Amrita breathed. This question was easier to handle, despite her interviewer’s brusqueness. Slowly, choosing her words with care she started to explain how and where she would be able to contribute fruitfully. The man listened to her in silence. He remained silent after she stopped speaking, and continued to contemplate her in silence for so long that Amrita began to feel awkward.
“Well you seem committed enough. But what about keeping late hours? What about your family? Won’t they object? You also have to tour, a bit. Are you up to it?”
“That won’t be a problem sir. I have help at home. I can...”
“Okay Mrs Khurana, I will see what I can do. Qualification wise you are fine. There’s just one problem; you don’t speak either Mandarin or Malay. Knowledge of at least one of the local [languages] is always a bonus. So you see, although you seem to be quite good, I can’t promise you anything right now. We will get back to you. Okay, la?”
He nodded dismissively at her. Amrita walked towards the door with a metallic taste in her mouth. The next interview was in Ang Mo Kio, at four thirty in the evening. She looked at her watch. It was only two forty five. This time Amrita walked down Orchard Road, in the opposite direction, towards Takashimaya.
Amrita walked slowly, taking in each floor with a forced sense of leisure. An elegantly attired middle-aged lady selling pearl jewellery from a kiosk at the basement in Takashimaya, smiled at Amrita. Thursday afternoons did not bring in much business, and this slender gazelle of a girl had caught her eye. Amrita smiled back. Encouraged, the lady beckoned, and Amrita, from want of anything better to do, and a little out of a sense of womanly curiosity, went up to her.
“Where you from, la?” said the pearl lady, smiling.
“India,” said Amrita returning her smile.
“But you’re so tall. So fair. North India?”
“Er... Yes. I’m from New Delhi.”
“Oh New Delhi? Oh yes, yes. North Indians more pretty. Tandoori chicken. My son, he love tandoori chicken la. So I learn to make la! Your family also love tandoori?”
Amrita smiled self-consciously. The lady took a rope of pearls and motioned Amrita to bend her neck. Amrita was startled, but did as she was asked. The lady deftly clasped the pearls around her neck and placed a mirror on the counter.
“I’m sorry, I can’t buy,” said Amrita, her cheeks flushing
“No, no, la. No buy. Just you wear now and see,” said the lady smiling broadly now. “Beautiful neck you have, so slim and long la! You should tell your husband to get you only beautiful pearls like these ho!”  
Amrita touched the pearls at her neck. They felt smooth and cool against her skin. She stood there looking at them for some time, their lustre encircling her throat, lovingly, and tenderly. The lady gently took her hand and slipped a pearl ring on her finger and a bracelet on her wrist. She adjusted the mirror so Amrita could see her throat and hand at the same time. The two women stood there quietly enjoying the mood of the pearls. It was a long magic moment for Amrita, which dissolved as softly as it had arrived when she took off the ring and bracelet. The lady gently unclasped the rope of pearls with soft cool fingers. Amrita felt her touch like a blessing.
“Thank you,” said Amrita huskily, before walking away from the kiosk. The woman smiled and waved. She didn’t see the rest of the mall, but walked out as if in a dream, the lady and her pearls lingering on in her mind.
The sky had finally opened up and it poured down sheets of rain, pushing the people against doorways and covered steps. The wind blew the rain in all directions, discharging wetness with precision, but without aim. Amrita stood with the other stranded people. The rain fell on her face like needles. She touched her throat where the pearls had lain a few minutes ago, and found it wet with droplets. She inched back into the mall, and waited.
Once the rain abated, Amrita moved along with the throng towards the long neck of the MRT station, set with rows of shops, called Wisma Atria. The smell of fresh brewed coffee and hot-off-the-oven brownies at a newly opened eatery tempted Amrita. She sidestepped into the store to enjoy a brownie.
Amrita sat there for a while contemplating the people around her. She fished out the address from her hand bag and looked at it. The address did not throw up any image of the place she was to visit. There was no street name to give her a picture; just the building number followed by an Avenue number something. Maybe she was better off getting into a taxi once she got off at Ang Mo Kio.
When she reached, Amrita was surprised to discover that this last interview of the day was to take place in a shop selling spectacles. The two things that the advertisement had clearly stated were ‘very good remuneration package’ and ‘experience not necessary, training provided.’ She had assumed it would be an office. The shopping complex where it was located seemed shabby compared to the ones she had been to earlier in the day. Amrita hesitated before the glass door. An old man squatting on the corridor drinking Teh Tarik smiled at her toothlessly and motioned her to go in. He nodded his head as he pointed towards the door. The rest of the people, in their shops and kiosks ignored her. Styrofoam cups and soda cans lay in a heap near a bin. A stray cat minced its way through the trash. Amrita inhaled the mingled odours of Pandan leaves and Durian and quickly exhaled as she went in. 
An earnest looking, bespectacled man looked at her owlishly. “Yes?”
“You advertised for sales manager?”
“Ah. Yes, yes, yes. Please take a seat. I explain scheme to you la.”
Amrita sat down, her fingers ready with her papers. But the man seemed least interested. He sucked in his breath and launched into a memorized selling spiel about a scheme that Amrita could barely comprehend. The man talked nonstop for ten minutes, at the end of which he sucked in his breath again.
“Very good policy la. You make good money la. Just deposit two hundred dollar, get returns, twenty percent. One time only deposit. You sell policy to others, get big-big returns...”
Amrita stared at the man until he became a blur. Only his lenses gleamed back at her like a pair of cat’s eyes in the dark. Amrita rose from her seat like a somnambulist and left without saying a word. Behind her the man sucked in his breath like a secret that had spilled and now must be quickly gathered in. The door closed behind Amrita with sibilant urgency.
The rain was a dull drizzle by the time she reached the road outside the shopping centre. Clutching her files close, Amrita found herself walking in the rain towards the bus stop.
“The next stop is Kembangan.”
Amrita raised her head as the disembodied voice cut into her reverie. Her fingers were numb from clutching her files. She let herself out as the doors slid open. Once outside, she hurried forward, almost running towards the park that would take her home to Yash. The canal slunk along beside her, occasionally winking back at the lights from the houses on the other side. Her feet squelched loudly on the wet path of the empty park. She moved swiftly under the dark moisture laden trees, a feeling of dread giving speed to her feet. She slowed her pace only when she saw the street lamp’s welcoming light outside their gate.
She found Yash waiting for her when she entered. The twins were in their bedroom trying to have a pillow fight as quietly as possible. The maid was with them in their room. She would not come out until called to serve their dinner. He watched her as she took off her damp shoes. She shook her hair free of droplets before slipping into a pair of rubber flip-flops. Her neck looked fragile, like a delicate stalk holding up a tulip. He almost smiled at the thought; he had never thought of tulips with regard to Amrita in Holland. He must not forget to tell her that she had blossomed into one only after coming to Singapore. She saw him looking at her and smiled, but her smile was more bud and less bloom.
He did not ask her how the interviews had fared. He silently handed her a glass of Hennessey. They sat on the couch together, holding their glasses, not speaking, not touching; not even looking at each other. He waited for her to speak. He knew her words would not come until later, much later.
Lately Yash had been noticing small changes in Amrita - how her pale fingers fluttered ever so slightly when she moved, and how she had begun to wrap gauzy lengths of silence about her. Her shoulders had begun to stoop ever so little between the words. Her eyes looked like deep wells that could not reflect light. And when at last her words came out in twos and threes, they were often muffled.
He waited nonetheless, and she sought his patiently waiting presence, the same way she sought the sweet smelling spaces between the silver slants of falling rain. They sat with their glasses warming in their hands, listening to the rain as it drummed and thrummed its songs on the mosquito-mesh covered windows. In the dim gold light of their parlour, only the rain’s voice spoke.
* * * * *
"Tall Girl in the Rain" first appeared in RK Biswas's short story collection Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women (Authorspress, New Delhi).
RK Biswas is the author of Culling Mynahs and Crows (Lifi Publications, India) and Breasts and Other Afflictions of Women (Authorspress, India). Her third book Immoderate Men is forthcoming from Speaking Tiger Books, India. Her short fiction and poetry have been published worldwide. Notably in Asia Literary Review, Eclectica, Per Contra, Etchings, Markings, Pushing Out the Boat, Muse India, Out of Print, Nth Position, to name a few. She won second prize in the India Currents Katha Literary Fiction Prize for her story ‘It Comes from Uranus” in June 2016. Her novel was listed as one of the 20 most popular books published in 2014 by The Readers’Club, Delhi.  In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer's Retreat Short Story Contest. Her poem "Bones" was a Pushcart Nominee from Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. Her poem "Cleavage" was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2006 and also was a finalist in the Aesthetica Contest in 2010. Her story Ahalya's Valhalla was among Story South's Notable stories of the net in 2007. She blogs at http://biswasrk.wordpress.com