The desire for a man other than your husband begins with the smallest favorable comparison.
A single pleasing action by an otherwise total stranger can qualify him as a good human being, a good man, a good husband. It may simply be that this other man does not complain about your curtains being drawn against the sun. Your husband insists that they be open at all times, even though the sun gives you migraines. Or this other man — whether visitor, friend, or relative — does not mind that your curry has goda masala in it. Your husband has forbidden that spice, because it was used at your mother’s house, not his. That this other man, unlike your husband, is indifferent to the fact that your coffee table, with its sharp corners, is not placed in the center of the rug but near the wall, so that your baby can crawl around without hurting herself. Her father’s logic is that the more she knocks her head on its corners, the faster she will learn to avoid it.
Small things. Not a family history of serving in high places in the government, nor owning businesses, nor inherited wealth. All of these your husband has in plenty. At this point in your life, after three years of marriage, the small things have become the basis for your opinion.
And you, when pleased by the small things a man does, accept that other man’s jokes, his compliments. It is as if he has opened a secret door inside you, and you don’t know where or how you let him in.
But there he is, a smiling man from Calcutta, an engineer. Married. With a sweet wife of his own. They have recently moved here to Bangalore, but the wife returns home often.
“The air here is too damp for her,” the engineer says. “She gets pains in the knees and ankles.”
You are surprised: Calcutta, by the sea, is no drier than Bangalore in the rains — in fact, it is just as humid.
“She is very delicate in her health,” he adds, still smiling. His teeth are very white under his black mustache.
Later, you learn that his wife is an only child and has never before lived outside of Calcutta. She speaks mostly Bengali and is very shy about her English. She smiles a lot. Her husband calls her Mishti, because her face is round like a rasgulla, and sweet, too. You can see she has that eastern fullness to her face, the slight upward slant to her eyes, the flat, broad lips. Yes, she is sweet to look at.
“He is only a mechanical engineer,” your husband has informed you, “from an unacclaimed college in Indore. And he has no MBA.”
“Which college did you qualify from?” you ask him, this smiling man from Calcutta, this Mr. Chatterji.
He made applications to sixty schools, he explains, covering most of Bengal and northern India. His teeth show in a wide smile. You notice the way his cheeks fold up in his face when he laughs — not quite dimples, but easy creases. And the way his eyes shine behind his square, dark-framed glasses.
“My father had lost all hope for me,” he goes on. “He had even approached the dean of Jabalpur College for admission, because he knew him personally. But no luck. Then someone dropped out at the last minute at Indore, and I was in! I was two marks short of the cutoff test score.” He looks embarrassed after his long explanation. Everyone is looking at him.
“What was the name of your college?” you ask. You want to know it, the name of that unacclaimed college.
“Indore Engineering College.” He shrugs his shoulders and smiles. “Have you ever wondered why people are so short on imagination when it comes to names for colleges? Agra Medical College, Agra. Goa Medical College, Goa. Indore Engineering College, Indore.”
You all laugh.
You are sitting in the drawing room. Mishti pulls her sari up over her ankles and sits down on the carpet. She pushes the coffee table aside and leans back against it. Her ankles look healthy to you. She opens her palms and invites your child onto her lap. “Aay,” she says, nodding her head. Your child stops and stares at her. Drool drips from her chin onto the carpet. Your husband gets a napkin and wipes it off the rug. Then, with the same napkin, he rubs the baby’s chin. He shakes his head at the dark patch on the rug. Charcoal was the word your sister-in-law used to describe the rug’s color when you first bought it. She said the color was charcoal, not dark gray, as you had called it. Charcoal. You appreciate the accuracy of the word. Charcoal.
You pick the baby up and sit her on your knee. She struggles off and crawls toward the coffee table. Mishti puts her hand over the sharp corner as the baby comes toward her. The baby goes to the other side and pulls herself up. Mishti watches, keeping the corner of the table covered.
“Nice table,” Mr. Chatterji says.
“Pure teakwood,” your husband says. “A gift from my uncle.” He looks at you.
Your family gave ugly presents — mainly stainless-steel cups and kitchen utensils with the names of the aunts who gave them engraved on the side: Mrs. Kavita from Sulochana Maushi, 1982.
Your husband does not eat or drink from stainless-steel utensils. He says he can’t see what he is drinking from a steel cup. Everything looks dark in steel, he says. In restaurants, he asks the waiter to bring him a proper teacup.
You have set the table with china plates, napkins, forks, and knives, although you question the need for knives and forks, as your guests are Indian and will eat with their hands. Your husband’s uncle, who was once chairman of the Indian Tobacco Company under British rule, always ate with a knife and fork, and it has become a family tradition, a mark of advancement, of progress.
When you first learned this, you were surprised. “Your uncle ate Hilsa fish curry with a fork?” It takes you half an hour to negotiate two pieces of that fine-boned silvery fish — half an hour of carefully pulling bones as sharp as needles from the white and fragrant flesh of the Ganges Hilsa.
“His cook knew how to debone it,” your husband said.
The tablecloth is maroon and black with a stylish, modern design of jagged lines and concentric circles. It matches the curtains. All were wedding gifts, planned and coordinated among your various in-laws.
The baby has been put to bed. Everyone sits down to eat: rice, aloo dum, chicken curry, Rahu fish jhaal, capsicum dry vegetable, tomato chutney — all are arrayed on the table in ovenproof casseroles. The desserts are lined up on the side table. You remove the lids from the bowls and start serving your guests: first the rice, then the curries.
Your husband complains that the rice is not steaming hot. This is true. It has gone cold and lumpy, having sat in its bowl for the last hour while you tried to get the baby off to sleep.
“The curries are hot enough,” says Mr. Chatterji. “Who can eat boiling-hot food?”
His wife says she once burned her tongue on chicken-corn soup in a Chinese restaurant and then couldn’t enjoy the rest of the meal. She pours the fish curry over her rice and begins eating with her hand. “Very good,” she says, pulling the bones out with her fingertips and laying them on the edge of her plate. “Very fresh fish.”
Everyone eats with their hands.
“So, do you travel much?” the engineer asks your husband.
“Not so much now. In the first year, I went all over Mysore — Shimoga, Belgaum, Mandya.”
“Mandya?” Mishti says. “Isn’t that where wild elephants destroyed the fields?”
It was in the news.
“What do people expect?” says your husband. “If they cut down the forests, this is what will happen.” Your husband disapproves of people who cut down trees. He believes they are irresponsible, even if they need the wood to cook their meals.
Mishti seems not to have heard him; she is thinking of something else. She reminds her husband of a story she read in the news, about an elephant who trampled a man’s scooter because he blew his horn at the animal.
The engineer laughs. “Oh, yes, I remember. There was this cartoon in the newspaper,” he says, turning to your husband. “The scooter driver looked very frightened.” Mr. C. opens his eyes wide and lets his jaw hang down. Everyone laughs except your husband.
“They can be quite dangerous,” your husband says, once the laughter has stopped. “Sometimes they can kill you.” He makes a crushing motion with his hand, as if it were the trunk of an elephant strangling someone. He looks as if he would like that to happen: for wild elephants to kill the people who cut down forests.
Then Mr. C. tells a story about a monkey at his office on the outskirts of Bangalore, where thick banyan trees are alive with scrawny brown monkeys. Mostly they leave you alone, he says, unless you feed them. Once, he made the mistake of leaving his lunch in the basket of his scooter, and when he returned, it was gone. He never even found the lunchbox.
Mishti shakes her head and smiles. “That is not the only lunchbox you have lost,” she says.
“I don’t have to pack lunches,” you say. “He prefers hot food at the cafeteria.”
“Well, anyway . . . ,” Mr. C. continues. There was this monkey at his work. She sat on the roof of his office all day. He saw her when he arrived that morning, and again in the evening when he left. At first, he thought she might have been sick or hurt, because she stayed apart from the others, who swung in the trees nearby. When he came back the next day, she was still there. She sat on the roof in the sun, and when it rained, she took shelter under the eaves. She couldn’t have eaten or drunk in the time she sat there. It was then that Mr. C. noticed that she held a baby; its head drooped off her arm. A dead baby. Stiff, still, silent.
On the third day, Mr. Chatterji was anxious to get to work to see what had happened to the monkey. She was still there, holding her baby, staring straight ahead of her. Sometimes she groomed the baby’s head for lice for a brief spell, then went back to staring.
At the dining table, where the four of you are eating, there is silence — a silence of the careful pulling of bones from fish with finger and thumb. As you eat, you think how it might be to love this man from Calcutta, this man who watched a monkey grieve for three days on the roof of his office. He is quiet, food drying on his fingers, on his plate. He mixes some rice and vegetables with his fingers, bends forward, and places the food in his mouth. He is looking at the vegetables, the green peppers. You have the idea that he looks at the food you have cooked the same way he did the monkey with the dead baby.
You spoon some vegetables onto his plate, because it is nearly empty. He waves his hands over it, meaning enough.
“What masala have you put in here?” he asks, after another mouthful.
“No masala,” you say, stealing a glance at your husband, who dislikes the way you cook green peppers. Your cooking style is west coast, Bombay, different from his family’s Bengali cooking.
“No masala,” you repeat, “just a little besan.”
“It’s very good.” Mr. C.’s cheeks crease into a smile again, as he looks at you through his dark-framed glasses.
You wave your hand, dismissing his compliment. “Probably because it is a new taste for you.”
You have scored a point here. Your husband has lost a point. You hope he has not noticed, because if he has, there will be trouble: No one could eat that awful green mess you cooked. Next time, clear the menu with me before you embarrass me in front of people like that. You watch your husband’s face. He is playing with a fish bone, tapping it on the edge of his plate. There may be punishment later: words, silence, other things.
“Everything tastes better at someone else’s house,” you say. Your laugh swells in the silence. The sweet wife nods. She can never eat her own cooking, she says. Her mother’s, her mother-in-law’s — anyone’s is better than hers.
You avoid the wife’s eye (and your husband’s) because you are thinking about this man and how you are a little in love with him. In love with the way he looks at things: at mourning monkeys, at your cooking, at you. You think how easy it would be to love this man who is not your husband.
And that is what you have done for the last two years, with different men, for the same reasons. For the way one shares an orange with his wife on a park bench. For the way another reads jokes aloud from the newspaper at breakfast. For the way this one enjoys your green peppers. You wonder if you are crazy, wicked, wild, what? What are you? You don’t know. But at that instant, when you avoid your husband’s eye and serve more peppers to your guest, you know your husband understands your treachery. He understands that infidelity that does not involve opening your legs, but opening your mind, the entering of another man through some hidden door inside you, and you don’t know which one, where, how. And he, your husband, to whom the door closed long ago, can accuse you of nothing. Nothing.
“Go get the dessert!” His voice startles everyone. “It’s getting late. We don’t want to hold our guests up.” He lowers his voice when he realizes that everyone is looking at him. “She has no time sense,” he says to the engineer in the dark-framed glasses. “First the rice is cold, and now this.”
You push back your chair to get the sweets.
“Did anyone feed her anything?” your husband asks.
No one appears to have heard his question. Mishti drinks her water. The engineer goes to wash his hands. You lay out the desserts on small plates.
“Did anyone feed the monkey anything?” your husband asks again.
“What?” your guest says, as if he did not understand.
And you think the same: What? Though later, when you look back on it, you will realize that your husband is not a bad man. He also felt for the monkey; that is clear from his question.
“Did no one offer her any food?” he asks once more, looking from one person to the other in exasperation.
“Would you like a gulab jamun, or a rasgulla?” you ask your husband, holding out the dessert tray.
“It never occurred to anyone to offer her food,” the engineer from Indore Engineering College, Indore, says, shrugging his shoulders.
Your husband shakes his head in disbelief at the stupidity of people. He reaches for the rasgulla you have offered him.
Everyone eats in silence.
That night, your husband wants to get inside you. He grips your wrist, and though you want to resist, you don’t, because he is your husband. Afterward, in compensation, he asks if you want water. You are not thirsty, but he insists that you have some anyway, and you do, a little sip to freshen your mouth. Your husband watches you, but you are thinking of a dead monkey and trees and offices and a man in black-framed glasses watching from below. You smile at the thought of this man in black-framed glasses and how his face creases when he smiles, and how his eyes shine, and how the sun looks in his hair as he watches the monkey. How beautiful the sun.