Fiction

The red scarf

By Manjula Padmanabhan

6 July 2018

A short story
Illustration: Manjula Padmanabhan

Illustration: Manjula Padmanabhan

At eleven thirty in the morning I set off from my home at one end of New Delhi’s Sunder Nagar.  Feet dragging, heart thudding. I am headed towards a guesthouse at the other end of this posh, leafy colony, with its neat gardens and fortress-like boundary walls.

I walk along the back road which follows the rear wall of the Delhi Zoo feeling like the subject of a Discovery Channel documentary: Tribal warrior sets off on puberty quest. Except there are no tribal elders rooting for me, there is nothing noble or praiseworthy about my quest and I’m thirty-eight years old, way past puberty.

Nevertheless, here I am. Plodding along under the sun’s burning eye.

At my destination, I climb the single flight of stairs to a neat self-contained company flat-let. I stand at the door looking for a bell. There isn’t one. It’s early in April and the furnace of Delhi’s summer is just starting to stir. There’s a film of moisture on my skin.

I tell myself that I can still abort this mission.

I have dressed in a consciously neutral, self-effacing manner: white-on-white Anokhi kurta-pajama with a mustard yellow dupatta. As an old-school feminist I gave up all forms of make-up in my twenties. As an artist working alone in a paint-spattered studio I rarely need to be concerned about my appearance. The result is, I am quite plain: of medium height with a thick-waisted blocky figure, and my hair, just starting to grey, is tied back in a pony-tail. I wear wire-frame glasses with plastic lenses.

The reason my appearance is relevant right now is that I’m about to confront an exceptionally attractive young woman, a Canadian visitor to my home and to my life. I am going to make a request that she will find ridiculous, even slightly crazed. I had telephoned her the day before, to set up this date. I did not say what I wanted to talk to her about, just that I wanted to meet her.

Were I equally attractive, I would not feel like a supplicant approaching a god-like being, begging for a favour. But I am not equally attractive. I am an artist and I take beauty seriously. I consider it to be a force, like wealth or electricity. It can break hearts and change the course of history. It can be used to power engines, create jobs, build bridges, tunnel through mountains. It can also ruin lives.

I believe this young woman’s beauty has the potential to ruin my life.

So I’ve come to ask her, very politely and respectfully, if she wouldn’t mind switching her beauty off. Just for the two months that she and her husband are visiting India. Just while she’s in contact with my world. I know that it’s an unreasonable request yet I am disturbed enough by her beauty to feel that I must at least make the effort. We are human beings. We have speech, we have the ability to reason and to argue. Why not use these tools to make a request?

I hold my breath as I lift my hand to knock on the door. There’s no response. No sounds from inside. I feel emboldened and knock again. After all, if she chooses not to answer then I’m off the hook. I can return to my side of Sunder Nagar feeling aggrieved that she stood me up and also victorious because I made the effort.

Still no response.

Third time lucky, I say to myself, as I knock once more. Now, yes, I hear a sound from inside. Quick footsteps, a click and the door opens.

There she is. Angélique.

She is dressed in a long-sleeved black tee-shirt that clings to her pin-up model figure. She’s about the same height as me, wearing a midi-length grey skirt. Her hair is bright, the colour of saffron and honey combined.  She has dramatic dark eyebrows, rich creamy skin, olive-green eyes, a wide, mobile mouth. “I almost didn’t open the door,” she says. She doesn’t smile. Yet she stands aside, to let me in. She has a very slight French accent but in the way of someone who is equally fluent in both languages. “I don’t understand why you want to meet me.”

I enter, looking around: nervous tense.

Nevertheless.

I sit down, I look up at her and I say, “Well, no. I think you do know.”

She remains standing. The room is cuboid and functional, with cool grey marble-chip floors and white walls, with pairs of tall windows on adjacent walls. The glossy-leaved giant Monstera growing outside appears to be gawking at us through the glass. Centralised air-conditioning creates the illusion of temperate freshness.

Angélique’s face is still as she lifts one shoulder in a shrug.

“Look,” I say. “This is very difficult for me, but I’m going to say it anyway: it’s about Dee.” That’s not his full name. “Dylan. I know that he’s …” This is the really hard part and I must force myself to continue. “Look, I know that he’s interested in you. He likes you. He’s been visiting you here.” I’m stumbling forward like a blind person walking in an alley paved with forks. I’m waiting for her to pick up a cue, to say something, anything, that might help me, even though I know she won’t. She doesn’t.

“I told him I was coming to see you today.”

She frowns now, a faint dimple appearing between her dark brows. “You told him? What did he say?” I know why she’s frowning. She’s thinking that, if he knew, he should have mentioned it to her.

“Nothing.”

Because there’s nothing to say. We’re all grown up. She and her husband are guests of Dylan’s father and are staying in the company flat. Dylan and his parents are Americans, long-time residents in India. She’s been over to the house a couple of times. That’s where we met, because I live there, with Dylan and his parents. We met once in the hallway and were introduced briefly. Whenever she and her husband were over for a meal, I had been out.

“That is very strange.”

I’m looking at the floor. It’s a gleaming, polished surface with the tiny speckles and granulations that give it a pleasing texture. The cement is laid in long rectangles, separated by thin strips of glass. I take in a breath. “No, not really. It’s not strange. It’s because there’s nothing to say. And even if there was – something to say, I mean – none of us would actually say it.” I look up. “We’re adults. We’re independent actors. We’re each free to do what we want with our lives. I can’t tell him what to do or not do. And I’m not here to tell you that either.”

Her frown deepens. “You are really not making sense.”

I sigh. “I know. It’s very hard to put what I want to say into words. It’s just that I … I …” I pause, to stop myself from stammering. I compose myself and start again. “I’m here to make an appeal. We are two women interested in the same man. And I wanted to ask you if you could just, well, just stay away from him.” Turn your charm off. Remove yourself from his company. Keep yourself distant. The vocabulary available for conversations of this type is very limited.

The look she gives me! Three parts contempt and one part amazement.

She clicks her tongue. “How can you ask that? It’s unnatural, what you want from me!” she exclaims. “I don’t think anyone can ask that. It’s not possible.”

When I think back upon this moment later, I wonder why she didn’t ask me to leave.

“It’s true that I am attracted to Dylan,” she continues. “Why not? After all, he’s a very interesting man! He likes me too, my company. Why not? Why should we not meet and talk and find pleasure in our contact?”

“No reason,” I say. “I’m not questioning your right. I’m making a request.”

“Ah – but that request! How can you make it? How can anyone make it!”

I have been wondering the same thing. I can barely scrape together my justification even in the privacy of my mind. “Try seeing this from my perspective. There are three of us in this situation, you, Dee and me–”

She cuts in to say, “I am married too, you know? I have a husband! We are here only for a very short while. He will come back next week–”

“Yes,” I say, glancing at her, then looking away again, “but he is not my concern. Maybe you have an open- relationship. Maybe it doesn’t matter to him’’. I can only respond to what I know about why it’s not all right for me. Your presence is causing a disturbance, a kind of panic, in my life. And I don’t want it there. That’s all that I’m concerned about. Not morality. Not social customs. Not who’s right and who’s wrong.”

For the first time since I stepped into the room, I am no longer floundering. This part is clear to me. “I know it’s irrational. I know I should ‘get over it’ and be cool. But I am not feeling cool. I am not cool about Dee. He’s very important to me and yet my relationship with him is fragile. I admit that. And maybe that’s why ­– no, definitely that’s why – I can’t be cool. Do you see? It’s because I’m not secure. That’s why I feel threatened by you.”

She is shaking her head. “So. But. That is your problem, yes? Not mine. And besides–” she pauses before continuing. “He has never mentioned you. He has never said your name. I thought he was by himself, you know? Not going with anyone.”

“It’s not his style to talk about me,” I say, even though, in the moment, I feel a flash of pain. “He never talks about his personal life.”

“But he has spoken to you about me? What has he said – what did he say?”

Indeed, he has spoken to me about her. When her husband left town ten days ago, Dee had gone over to the guesthouse on his motorbike to deliver a packet of mail. He took a long time coming back and when he did, he couldn’t stop talking about her. Ever since then, he’s found some pretext or the other for coming over here. When he comes back her spirit returns with him. She’s in the room. She’s in his thoughts. They’ve not gone out on any dates, he’s not spent an evening with her, they’ve not even had a meal together. Yet they are entwined.

They are experiencing the exquisite delicacy of a mutual attraction when it’s still only an electric charge in the air. When it’s only a cloud of invisible fireflies tracing arcs of pure delight in the garden of secret desire. It’s my turn to shrug. “What he says is not the point. The point is that an attraction exists between you and him. That’s what bothers me. It’s like a wound on my consciousness.”

She is staring at me, with her forehead puckered.

“In situations like this,” I say, “the person in my position is usually powerless. Until ‘something happens’ – meaning, until something physical happens – we’re all expected to remain in our separate corners. Like horses before a race, waiting to run. Being polite and pretending that nothing’s going on. Because ‘nothing’ has happened.”

“Yes!” she cries. “Nothing has happened. And maybe nothing will happen! Why should you – how can you – be talking to me about this, about nothing–” She is agitated. She senses what I’m doing, but there’s nothing she can do to stop me. It’s already too late. By pointing to the fireflies, I am extinguishing them.

“Because I don’t like being passive,” I say. “Dee didn’t want me to come but he couldn’t tell me not to. Because we’re all adults, right? We can do what we like and say what we like? So I wanted to say to you, person-to-person, that I can see what’s happening and I would like it NOT to happen. That’s all I can do. I can’t make a scene or call the police or take you to court. I’d like to think that this is how feminist solidarity can work. That two women can meet and talk about a man in whom they are interested and can decide to respect the boundary of a pre-existing relationship.”

She gives a disgusted little snort. “Feminist solidarity! It has no meaning, in this context. Or maybe any context. After all, I could say for instance that you are telling me to suffocate my emotions so that you can feel comfortable in your relationship – which, by the way I have not seen any sign of, until you told me just now. You have even said to me that it is a weak relationship. So why should I pay attention to it? Why is it worth saving? After all, it is Dylan who is my friend! Not you. Why should I not be concerned for him? Who, maybe, needs to be saved from a destructive, negative relationship?”

“You’re right,” I say, nodding. “There’s no reason for you to pay attention to my request. You’re thinking of your short stay in India. You want to maximise your experiences while you’re here.” I get to my feet. “Whereas I’m thinking of my entire future.”

“I think you should leave,” she says.

“I think so too,” I say. “But thank you for listening.”

She opens the door. I go out.

I walk home feeling thoughtful. I have no idea whether or not the morning’s encounter was worth the effort. When I get home, Dee wants to know how the visit went.

“What did you talk about?” he wants to know.

“Nothing much,” I say.

A little while later, his phone rings and I know it must be her, because he leaves the house and I hear his motorcycle purring along the back road. When he returns, he is much more curious.

“She seemed very subdued,” he tells me. “What on earth did you say to her?”

“Did you ask her?”

“No.”

“Did she mention that I’d been to see her?”

“No,” he says.

Whereupon I smile and nod, saying nothing more.

The very next day, she calls to set up a lunch date with him, in the little flatlet.

On the morning of the date, Dee comes to me with a request. He’s slightly shame-faced. “Do you remember you went to Anokhi the other day?” he begins. “You came back with a couple of scarf-like things?” Yes, I remembered. They were two dupattas, part of an experimental line of fabrics, dyed in red indigo. I had bought two pieces, both in the same shade of brick red, solid colour, with an all-over block-print of black wavy lines and lively dots. They were very similar but not identical.

“Well, I think I should take a gift for her,” he says. Angélique’s Richard is returning to Delhi tomorrow and a week later they will leave to Canada. “I thought one of those would be perfect but I don’t feel like going out to buy one. So would you mind if …?”

I tell him I don’t mind at all. I hadn’t so much as taken the price tag off of it. I offer to gift-wrap the small parcel for him. He takes it from me and leaves to meet her.

As soon as he leaves, I feel a powerful spasm of irritation. Of course he will not tell her that the “scarf” is mine. So she will think he bought it, that he had made the effort of finding something that suits her and she will feel justifiably flattered and warmed by his attention. The irritation I feel is directed at myself.

Why do I care, I ask myself. It’s all coming to an end. This is the last of it. Soon she and her husband will leave and this whole carnival of annoyance will be over.

It’s incredibly petty to waste even a moment’s attention on such minor things. Either I should not have given Dee the scarf or else I should have let it go and thought nothing more of the giving.

Yet the knowledge that she won’t know to whom the scarf really belongs to continues to twitch and tickle, like pin-worms in the anus. By allowing her to be ignorant of the source of the scarf, a small fragment of my life has been left out of the record of reality. Yet, by letting it go and remaining anonymous, I am signaling to the Universe that I will not be defined by pettiness. The pin-worms refuse to settle down, however. There’s nothing I can do but wait for the infestation to be over.

During the week that follows, Dee, who has been preparing to go on a motorcycle trip, leaves for what will be a month-long absence.

Soon it’s time for Angélique and Robert to leave as well. It’s been decided well in advance that they’ll come home for a final lunch.

It’s on a Sunday and I have chosen to be present in the house. Dee’s parents are genial hosts. They like entertaining. They have an excellent cook in the kitchen and they keep a splendid table. I have no part to play in the lunch except to come out when it’s time.

So I’ve had a whole week in which to contemplate this encounter.

If I wear my scarf, Angélique will know right away where hers came from. Even if she never guesses that Dee did not buy either of them, just seeing a very similar one on me will snuff out the pleasure and uniqueness of her gift.

I can choose to cause the snuffing or, in the spirit of generosity that inspired me to give away the scarf, resist the impulse.

Right up till the morning of the lunch, I have told myself I will resist the impulse. Then on the morning, I hear them enter the house.

Something about the sound of Angélique’s voice, the silky assurance of it, the confidence and the entitlement that she, like all naturally beautiful women, takes so much for granted, sets my teeth on edge. I sling my red indigo scarf around my neck with roguish pleasure and check the mirror.

It looks wonderful.

When she sees it, the light in her eyes will die, even if only briefly. I know it. I feel it in my bones.

Then as I leave my room, at the last moment, I tear the scarf off and go out into the dining room bare-necked.

They are already there, Dee’s parents, Richard and Angélique, around the dining table. She is across the room from me when I enter. And she is wearing my scarf.

We nod our helloes in the way of casual acquaintances who have met only once before, fleetingly, in the hallway. We sit on opposite sides of the table so that all the way through lunch, I can admire the scarf and see how perfectly it complements her, sets off the glowing colour of her hair, sits gracefully on her shoulders. I notice that she plays with it and caresses it absent-mindedly, as if using it as a talisman to ward off my presence in the room.

The lunch draws to a close.

The afternoon is gathering up its corners for departure and the guests are preparing to say their final thank-yous.

Dee’s mother turns to Angélique and says, “That’s a very pretty scarf you’re wearing. It really suits you.”

“Thank you,” Angélique replies, “it was given to me by a dear friend.”

I want to say, No, no – you’re wrong! It is more complex than that.

But I say nothing and soon, they are gone forever from my life.

~Manjula Padmanabhan is a fiction writer, artist, playwright and India’s first woman cartoonist. Her weekly cartoon strip ‘Sukiyaki’ appears in BusinessLine. Her most recent book, The Island of Lost Girls, is a science-fiction novel.

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