At five pm one Wednesday evening, Pravin stood, rigid, on the top outside step of the Washington Dance India Institute’s studio, looking in at his wife Mira, trying not to feel irritated that she wouldn’t turn, look at him. She floated, arms raised, in her magnolia-pink sari in front of her students, demonstrating Kuchipudi dance gestures with her hands. Skin flushed pink, sweat glazing the moon of her forehead, as if she’d been dancing all afternoon.
Crocodile, he’d heard her say already, as he came up the stone path to the side of this lovely performing arts center in this cherry-tree brimming suburb of Northwest DC. Bird sitting still. Bird flying. Look, wings flapping! It made him remember the first time he’d met her, at her parents’ house in Madras, with his parents beside him. Her voice the first thing he heard. Outside the front window, shaded by tall yellow and red speckled crotons, a small ecstasy of longing. I want to dance, she was saying, in a rush of little-girl whirling, I want to dance! She was laughing. Her voice smooth as brandy, sweet burn of cognac swirled in a glass you held up to appreciate in mellow, yellow lamplight. And there was so much to appreciate in Mira Krishna. Her satiny shining hair, almost-Punjabi peaches and cream skin, exquisite dancer’s gait, that especially, sinuous slide of satiny thigh and hip through always stunned, admiring air. Pravin appreciated the barely-withheld gasps when Mira walked into rooms, at his side. Her long-lashed dancer’s eyes etched in charcoal blue eyeliner, lips lush pouts of Revlon raspberry red, her exquisite Agra jewelry lighting up her throat and earlobes, intricate filigrees of silver, deep burning hearts of topaz and garnet and emerald. Her saris jewel colors too, in georgette and silk. Even her jeans as unique, soft as brushed velvet. She was both beautiful and elegant. Well-endowed and well-appointed. Trophy wife. His Indian beauty. And a dancer. What a catch.
People came right out and said it to him. He affected distance, cool and all-accepting, as if this were simply his due, as if all Indian women were this astonishingly beautiful. “Indian women,” he’d murmur, and leave it at that. He’d schooled himself to be self-deprecating. He’d spent years shaping this quality in himself. From very young, there was a certain something he’d wanted to be seen as, cool, cerebral, remote, it was how his father was, and some of his uncles, and his most deliberate professors in business school, the image of success, he learned, he’d trained himself into it. High on ideas, low on words. A self-confessed visionary, like the other non-techie managers at his IT consultancy, who didn’t have a specialty to warrant the appellate “technical” but had visions of things. They understood him. Him saying a little meant a lot. They understood this.
They weren’t to know he’d chosen her for her looks. Or her talent. He had specified these, in his criteria for the marriage. The bride must be fair, he’d always known, and independently talented. He’d meant, she must have an interest in building a singular, separate but domestic life, apart from him. (He’d imagined home decor, laminated maple leaves in the fall, glazed baby squash in straw baskets at the door, wreaths of pine on the bannisters at Christmas. He had lived just long enough in the States to consider these quintessentially, almost agelessly, American.) He’d wanted a dancer. An Indian classical dancer, schooled especially in that ancient South Indian art, Bharatanatyam. My wife is a dancer, he’d always wanted to say, with a slight, urban smile. Permitting the weight of ancient history to enter the room on his arm. He smiled when his American colleagues remarked on the ancience of the art, how Bharatanatyam perhaps was older than anything in America. He did not dispute or elaborate. He had learnt to smile, to say simply: My wife is trained classically.
At which reminding thought Pravin coughed, a gentle, vocal hint. But his dancer wife was absorbed in flowers now and could not hear him. Flower opens, she said, delightedly to the room full of rustling seven- and eight- and nine-year-olds. Jasmine or rose. Champa flower. Sweet-smelling, so sweet. He noticed faintly, approvingly, with the back of his mind, that she did not say redbud, or cherry, or daffodil, all of which were blooming outside, in the middle of this Washington spring. (It was a feat to remain in touch, mentally and emotionally, with one’s own culture when one was living in the West, tens of thousands of miles away, it was surely commendable.) She closed her eyes, moved open-cup fingers in front of her nose, pink pallu trembling as she inhaled. Long stem of flowers opening—she opened and closed her cupped fingers along her arm. She was absorbed and could not see or hear him. Seemingly lost in herself—he recognized the signs. For days, no, months he’d felt this absorption in her, growing like a secret flower-bed, full of closed-in scents and slow, heated obsession. For months he’d felt his own resentment at it bruise and graze like hive-stricken skin. A flowering of his own, rough tonguing of annoyance, a springing of tiny, sting-tipped hairs on a rose stem. He felt it now, unwanted irritation rasp along the outside of his arm. He wanted her just to turn, look at him. But she wouldn’t.