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A window into love and marriage in modern-day Mumbai

Editor’s Note: PBS NewsHour’s Elizabeth Flock writes about love and marriage in India in her new book, “The Heart Is a Shifting Sea: Love and Marriage in Mumbai,” released on February 6, 2018. This excerpt is the prologue to the book.

Maya and Veer

In Mumbai, people say the monsoons make everyone fall in love. But this year the rains are late and the June nights are hot. So are tempers. Maya and Veer fight in the early mornings inside the bedroom of their eleventh-floor apartment, in a colony of concrete apartment buildings in a far-north suburb of the city.

One morning, they fight so loudly it agitates four-year-old Janu, who is playing with his toys in his bedroom down the hall. He pushes the door open to their room to see his father, in dress pants and no shirt, shout and point a finger at Maya, who is seated on their low bed. “Do not raise your voice with my mother,” Janu says, in his grown-up way of speaking. “I do not like that. Say you’re sorry.”

My superhero, thinks Maya. To her, Janu looks every bit the part, even though he is so little, with his dimpled chin and gelled hair combed off to one side, a single lock falling onto his forehead. Maya once thought Veer also looked like a superhero, with his glossy hair, open face, and irresistible smile. She didn’t even mind his six toes or lazy eye, which he said were signs of extra specialness and good fortune.

“I’m sorry,” says Veer, not looking at Maya, as he gathers Janu up in his arms.

In the days that follow, Veer and Maya hold their tempers in check. On cooler days, it is easier. And on a Sunday morning not long after, when several fragile clouds arrive to mercifully block out the sun, Veer surprises his wife and tells her he won’t go to work that Sunday.

Ordinarily, Veer spends Sundays as he does every day: working long hours at the family aluminum foil business. After he leaves, Maya and Janu often board the local train to go to Crossword, a chain bookstore Maya loves for its fiction and coffee shop, and Janu for its toys. The shopkeepers let Janu play on the floor for hours while Maya sits hunched over a book, often by Rumi or Haruki Murakami. They will do anything for the attractive mother with the big, kohl-rimmed eyes and petite but curvy figure. Madame, they whisper to each other, looks just like a movie star. When Janu gets bored of playing, Maya takes him on her lap and tells him fantastical stories.

“Let’s go to Crossword, Mayu,” Veer says now, using his pet name for her, which he seldom does these days. “I’ll come along this time.”

If you are a stupid woman, Maya thinks, you’d say, “Well, at least he’s around, baba.” But she knows he only wants to come for Janu.

“Okay,” she says, and gathers up her purse and Janu’s backpack and checks that she has both her phones. A text from Subal pops up on her screen. She reads it and then quickly puts her phone away.

At the sight of Subal’s name her mind often wanders to that first day they spent at Aksa. Aksa Beach is just thirty minutes away by auto rickshaw, but it feels a world apart from the city’s pollution and chaos and noise. It is nothing like her frenetic suburb, once a quiet village and now one of the city’s most congested areas. But most of Mumbai’s suburbs are like this—officially a part of the city, and just as noisy and crowded as the downtown. Within minutes along the drive to Aksa, by contrast, the roads become slow and winding.

Along the route are small, quiet rivers, where local people fish and young boys swim. And at the end of the road stands a grove of trees, which opens up onto a magical seaside hotel. Whitewashed and sprawling and encompassed by green, the hotel is called: “The Resort.”

The Resort is their place. It is where Subal tried to steal a kiss in December, when there was a mild breeze. They ate from the breakfast buffet and sat talking for more than an hour beside the pool.

The water was a clear, still blue, and the palm tree fronds hung over them. Maya found herself drawing lines on his palms. They both wanted something but did nothing. Then she and Subal had gone back again in May. May was the “Big Bang,” or so they called it—the day when the energy and tension between them led to a kind of explosion, everything out in the open at last.

“Come on, Mayu,” Veer says, and Maya refocuses on her husband, who is holding open the front door. He stands next to a colorful lettered sign that reads: “Sukhtara,” which means “happy star.” It is the name Maya gave their home when they moved in.

To her surprise, their Sunday goes as comfortably as the family scenes in the Tata phone commercials. A quiet car ride, followed by lunch at Bombay Blue, a trendy, air-conditioned restaurant in a central suburb of town, and then to Crossword, where Janu plays as Maya and Veer talk over iced coffee. Veer reads aloud to Maya the juvenile messages he received from old school friends that week, and Maya tells him about a teacher at her school who comes in with hickeys from her husband. Veer laughs uncertainly at this.

At Crossword their phones are left unanswered. Maya purchases Sacred Games, an English-language cops-and-robbers novel that is a kind of love letter to Mumbai. It is a thick book, and it has that perfect piney smell. They buy Janu a soccer ball, which he clutches all the way home. As they drive, Veer puts on a CD of old Bollywood love songs, and he and Maya sing along.

But then Janu spots a KFC.

“Drumstick,” Janu says, pointing to the red and white sign. “I want drumstick.”

After Crossword, Maya often rewards Janu with fried chicken or some other meaty treat, because at home the meals are all vegetarian.

Veer doesn’t eat meat, or even garlic or onions, nonnegotiable beliefs passed down from his staunchly Hindu family.

“What’s a drumstick?” Veer asks.

“I don’t know,” says Maya, who shushes Janu, and begins singing along again with the song. Veer joins in, though he sings more softly now.

When dark falls, Janu is asleep at the foot of his parents’ bed, drumsticks long forgotten. He curls his arms around the legs of his father, who is already snoring. Veer will work longer tomorrow to catch up on the hours he lost not working Sunday.

Maya gazes at the two sleeping figures, one large, one small. She moves Janu, who is shivering in the air-conditioning after the heat of the day, so that his head is on a pillow, and brings a blanket up to his chin. She tucks them both in.

Every night I do this, she thinks. How long will I?

As Maya goes into the kitchen to clean up what is left of dinner, she sweats in the cramped room as the ancient ceiling fan circles. Unwashed dishes are piled high in the sink, but she is too tired to do them now. She allows herself a glance at her phone, where a message from Subal is waiting.

Once again she is at Aksa Beach, on the day of the Big Bang, after which Subal had gazed at her from across the hotel pool. As Maya had looked back at him, she’d felt an unfamiliar sense of peace. It is one she has not felt with Veer in a long time. She knows that she and Subal will meet at Aksa again soon.

Maya puts down her phone and plugs it in to charge. She turns off the lights in the kitchen and living room, where no breeze comes in, not now, when a thick heat sits over the city. And not this far from the sea, where the reversal in winds will one day bring the rain. The monsoon is still days away. And then she walks into her bedroom, where, careful not to wake the sleepers, she climbs into the empty space in bed.

Shahzad and Sabeena

It is the start of Ramadan, and Shahzad strides toward the mosque in the lightly falling rain. Sudden showers like these keep surprising the city, but the full force of the monsoon has not yet struck. Shahzad’s left leg lags behind the other, and he tries to pull it along more quickly. At this downtown mosque, at the southernmost tip of Mumbai, even the men who work in corporate offices answer the call to prayer on time.

At the entrance, Shahzad removes his chappals and ducks inside to join the rows of men with heads bowed. They touch their foreheads to the ground, murmuring in prayer. For several minutes, Shahzad dutifully mouths his prayers along with them, touching his forehead, nose, hands, knees, and feet to the ground, playing at being a good Muslim. But then his thoughts begin to wander.

Shahzad thinks of a beautiful woman he once saw on the street, and then another. He thinks about all the beautiful women he can remember: a buxom French woman with whom he sometimes does business, a half-Goan, half-Nigerian woman with siren red lips he used to know, and a platinum-haired woman he has only seen in photos online. He does not think of his wife, Sabeena.

He knows what the Prophet said: “Whenever any one of you comes across some attractive woman, and his heart is inclined toward her, he should go to his wife and have sexual intercourse with her, so that he might keep himself away from evil thoughts.” The Prophet does not say what a man should do if he cannot have proper sex with his wife anymore.

For Ramadan, Shahzad has stopped taking the horse pills, the ones the doctor says will make him more like a man. Instead, the pills only make him feel hot inside. Or maybe that is just the swelter of the city. Even now, kneeling on the mosque’s cool tiles, made wet by rain, the pills seem to have some power over him. He cannot stop thinking of other women.

The other day, on a very hot morning, Shahzad hugged the French woman and became excited as she hugged him back. Afterward, he went to confess to a local priest, who told him, “Unless you feel like something is coming out . . . the fast is there. It’s okay.” But Shahzad still feels guilty. He looks around and sees the other men praying with total calm. He forces himself to try harder.

Head to the ground, Shahzad asks God, as he always does, for a son. He thinks of how the conservative mullahs sometimes say that those who “have more wealth and more children . . . will not be punished.” They don’t say what a man should do if he becomes old—old enough to henna his hair to cover the gray—and still a child has not come.

The afternoon wanes, and Shahzad knows he needs to get home. Sabeena will start cooking soon for the breaking of the fast at sundown. For a moment, Shahzad considers stopping at the downtown market to bring home bhajias: spicy, crispy fritters wrapped in newspaper; their heat and oil taste so good in the cold rain. It has stopped drizzling, but the sky has gone dark as if it is about to pour. But he worries Sabeena will scold him for squandering money, so he doesn’t buy anything at all.

As Shahzad enters his apartment, he can smell the sickness in it. His mother, a gaunt woman with thin lips and carrot-orange hennaed hair, lies in a bed of crumpled sheets in the main room. Cotton balls are stuffed in her ears. Shahzad looks around for his bucktoothed, bright-eyed niece and nephew, who usually greet him at the door. But the house of twelve is quiet.

A moment later, Sabeena arrives, dressed in the black burqa she wears outside when she runs errands. Her arms are laden with groceries. “Hi, maji,” she says, greeting Shahzad’s mother in her deep, raspy voice, her round cheeks flushed from the walk. She gives a perfunctory nod to Shahzad. After removing her burqa, she moves quickly around the kitchen in her thick salwar kameez, chopping vegetables, boiling water, and tossing red chiles, cumin, and coriander into pots. As her scarf falls from her hair, Shahzad stares at her. It has been so long since they made love.

Soon, a spicy-sweet smell fills the apartment. Where are the children? Shahzad wonders again. As if hearing him, Shahzad’s nephew, eyes ablaze, comes charging out of his bedroom. “AHHHHHHHRRRRRR,” he shouts, waving his arms in the air.

Shahzad’s mother cries out and clutches her sheets, and Shahzad’s nephew, sensing easy prey, leaps onto her bed. He bounces on it once and rings a bell on the wall above her. “Masti matkaro,” she yells, “Stop it.” Her sallow face twists into a scowl. He leaps off the bed onto the floor and throws his arms up theatrically. Shahzad laughs, forcing himself not to clap. His niece, who has run into the living room to watch her brother’s antics, laughs along with him, her tight braids shaking.

Sabeena watches the scene from the airless kitchen, where the pots have begun to boil. The heat is so oppressive the monsoon must come soon. Marriage is like a laddoo, or heavy sweet, she thinks. If you eat it, you’ll cry, and if you don’t you’ll cry too. This was true whether or not you had children.

On the porn websites Shahzad sometimes visits surreptitiously, the videos of the heavier Indian women have that tag: laddoo. He hides these videos from Sabeena, as many husbands in the country do. And he does not tell the priest about them.

As Sabeena watches him from the kitchen, Shahzad thinks again of the pills he is taking. He considers doubling the dose. The clock turns 7:24 p.m.—time to break the fast and pray—and Shahzad looks up at his wife, but then, embarrassed, looks away.

Ashok and Parvati

The morning the sky opens, Parvati steams flimsy idlis for breakfast and curses as they stick in the pan. She wishes she were a better cook. A Post-it note with one of her mother’s recipes scrawled on it detaches from the wall. It is sticky and close in their apartment in north-central Mumbai, where many of the buildings are tall—so tall they seem to touch the clouds, almost—but she and Ashok don’t live in one of those. It always gets hot before the rain.

As she finishes the idlis, peeling them out of the pan one by one, the downpour comes all at once. It gives off a thunderous sound. From the kitchen window, she cannot see the cloud-high buildings through the sheets of water. For many days, the forecasters had promised rain, and the Hindu temples prayed for it, chanting mantras. But each day, it had not come.

Parvati does not like the monsoon. To her it means clogged roads, ruined shoes, and that her thick hair goes frizzy and wild. In Trivandrum, down south where she is from, there are two smaller seasons of rain. In Mumbai there is just one big fury. In both cities the sea grows rough when the monsoon arrives.

In the living room, Ashok reads the newspaper on the couch. As Parvati hands him breakfast, he says, “Hey, Chiboo,” and looks up at her over his nerdish glasses, which have slid to the tip of his nose. “Let’s spend our Saturday riding the new metro from one side to the end and back.”

He is actually serious about this, she thinks, and shakes her head before disappearing back into the kitchen.

That Saturday, they drive to Khandala instead, two hours southeast of the city. Khandala is in the Western Ghats mountain range, and Parvati hears it will be gorgeous in the rains. With a little thrill, she realizes how much her father will disapprove of this. He will say something like: You’re new to the place, don’t take any risks, why did you drive so far? But he cannot tell her how to behave anymore.

There was a time when Parvati loved the monsoon, when she was little, and she and her sister would play outside in muddy pools after school. They would stay out until their father got home from work or temple, and he would scold them to go inside. She loved it when she was at university too, and she and another student, Joseph, would kiss in the lab as the rains lashed the building outside. After the downpour ended, they always walked their bicycles across a campus that felt cool and clean. Joseph’s kisses felt illicit, electric.

“It’s responding to my touch, like it wants me to drive,” Ashok says, as they get on the highway to Khandala. Parvati rolls her eyes. But she already feels better leaving Mumbai’s city limits. Ashok rolls down the window and sighs. “The air is just rarefied,” he says.

The road to Khandala winds through the mountains, which are lush and unblemished and fantastically green. It is full of switchbacks and vista points. “Look,” says Parvati, pointing. A deep fog is rolling in.

In Khandala, they get out at the base of the Bhaja Caves, ancient rock-cut shelters built by early Buddhists. They walk up the path and pass a waterfall, which cascades down a steep, rocky mountain. Brash schoolchildren scale the rocks to the falls and scream as they dunk in their heads. When Ashok and Parvati reach the top, they take cover under a mounded stupa, built long ago for meditation. Protected as they are from the rain, Parvati thinks, just for a moment, that the monsoon feels romantic. She rests an elbow on Ashok’s shoulder and does not think of Joseph at all.

On the way back to the car, they get their photo taken, smiling at the base of the path. In Parvati’s smile there is just a trace of the six months of difficulty that came before. Months in which Ashok felt afraid of his new wife, who would rant and cry in the night and always blame it on her “past.” Months in which she kept a journal for all her dark and wild thoughts, a journal she did not let anyone see. Now, he thinks she has stopped writing in it.

That night, on the drive home, Mumbai’s traffic and chaos feel unnerving after the quiet of Khandala. As Parvati guides their car over the wet city streets, the road unexpectedly splinters into five. She slows down and then accelerates through the light, and a police officer flags down their car.

“License, insurance,” the officer barks at Ashok, though Parvati is the one driving. Parvati rifles through a pile of papers and hands them through her window. The officer, who is intimidating in his pressed khaki uniform, shakes his head as he walks around to take them. Ashok is not playing his part.

Baahar aao.” The officer’s tone is a warning now, and Ashok gets out of the car. After a short conversation, Ashok hands over the bribe, and the officer passes back the license in one swift, practiced movement.

“Why did you give that?” Parvati demands once Ashok gets back into the passenger seat. “You could have told them you are a journalist.”

“That doesn’t work,” he says, and feeling her glare, adds, “Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”

Parvati says nothing to this. She grips the steering wheel. After a long moment of silence, Ashok bangs his fist on the dashboard. Their trip suddenly feels spoiled. “Fuck,” he says, and the statue of Ganesh on their dashboard jumps, the pearls around the Hindu god’s neck jangling. “Assholes. Fuck fuck fuck.”

“You shouldn’t let them affect you like that,” says Parvati, primly, not looking at him. As she restarts the car, it begins to rain again. “You shouldn’t let them make you say those words and ruin yourself.”

Joseph, a good Catholic boy, would never have sullied himself that way.


From the book: THE HEART IS A SHIFTING SEA by Elizabeth Flock. Copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth Flock. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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