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Free Birds

Photograph of a man from behind
  • By Sachin Kundalkar
  • Issue 17
  • FableOctober 2016

(Translated from the Marathi by Jerry Pinto)

Yesterday, Ashish and Samuel invited me over for a meal. Both their names were on the door. Ashish was cooking while Samuel helped unobtrusively. They refused to let me do anything. I sat on a stool in the kitchen and watched them at work. I think they deliberately chose not to mention you. After lunch, while we were having coffee, Ashish went and sat next to Samuel and placed his warm cup against Samuel’s cheek. I looked down immediately. Samuel saw my discomfiture and said, “I’ll get some cookies,” and went into the kitchen.

In the past couple of years, I have begun to feel the need for a permanent relationship, something I can grow into. The thought had crept up on me that I might have such a relationship with you. When I looked at my parents and thought about this whole “together forever” thing, it never struck me as anything exciting. Yesterday, I was a little envious of what Samuel and Ashish had. When she spoke of Aseem’s wedding, Aai always said, “It’s best if these things happen in good time.” In her world, unmarried men were irresponsible free birds, and unmarried women like Rashmi had “not managed to marry.”

What do two men who decide to live together do? Men like you and me? Those who don’t want children? Those who don’t have the old to look after or the young to raise? No one would visit us because we’d be living together as social outcasts. For most of the day, we would do what we liked.

You sometimes asked me, “Why do you stare at me like that?” Did you know what I was thinking? We hadn’t met Samuel and Ashish then, so I didn’t know any male couples who lived together.

You spoke of a couple who had never lived together. She was a French writer whose work you loved. He was also a writer and a philosopher. They had never lived under the same roof. But they were friends and had remained so. Throughout their lives, they had pooled their income. They did an impressive amount of writing, teaching, and fighting for the causes they valued. They had given themselves the right to create a new kind of relationship. You spoke animatedly about them; the second time you described their relationship, I said, “You’ve told me about this already.”

“I’ll get some cookies,” Samuel said, and went into the kitchen. Ashish and I sat there without speaking.

Samuel did not come back. Perhaps he’d gone for a nap. After a while, Ashish came and sat down next to me. He said, “It hurts, doesn’t it? I get it.” But it was he who began to cry. I hugged him and patted his back as he cried and cried. Finally, exhaustion set in and he stopped and wiped his reddened eyes.

He said, “Don’t worry about it. Sometimes, I don’t understand Samuel at all. There are these phone calls that go on for hours on end. And if I’m with him, he goes into the next room. I just look at him. What can I say?”

For hours on end, I sat in that upstairs room, staring at you while you went about your life, unaware of my attention. You would be squeezing paint out of tubes, hanging your clothes out to dry, wiping your stained hands on your T-shirt, blowing on the milk as it bubbled over, lifting vessels off the hotplate, or sucking on a singed finger. I’d be staring at you and thinking, I should ask, I should ask, I should ask: Do you want to be in a stable monogamous relationship for the rest of your life?

Even if we’re not going to have children, even if we don’t have to worry about guests, even if we’re going to end up sleeping on two single beds, separated by a table on which there’s a copper vessel containing water, I want us to be together.

Why? I was a child then. I woke up in the middle of the night and went in search of a glass of water. Aai had a fever and Baba was sitting by her side, stroking her head. He gave her her pills and then he helped her up and took her to the bathroom . . . I still remember that scene.

No one had made me want to ask that question. Not Shrikrishna Pendse, with whom I stole some moments in empty classrooms; not Amit Chowdhuri, who lived alone behind Sharayu Maushi’s home; not Girish Sir, who kept me back after rehearsals when all the other kids had been sent away.

After we made love, I felt a delicious lassitude creeping over me. When consciousness returned, I realized that you were still with me; you hadn’t turned your back and edged away.

Later, I was awakened by the warmth of the sun, filtering in through the window, and a delectable aroma in the air. It was you, after a bath, your hair wet, sitting in a chair, looking at me.

“Why the lines on your forehead? Why that look of pain?” I cleared my face, consciously letting happiness through.

Sachin Kundalkar is a playwright, screenwriter, and novelist. Cobalt Blue, from which this story is excerpted, was his début novel and is his first major work available in English.

Photo from the series Stay © Sophie Harris-Taylor