On Thursdays, Narayan Dasgupta, BSc, MEng, MFin, assistant director, finance, Mahalakshmi Chemicals, disappointed himself.
In the afternoon, he quit work early and caught a taxi outside the Mahalakshmi campus in southeast Calcutta. Once the ride started, he opened his briefcase and allowed himself finally to start on the rosogolla he had saved from lunch. His thumbnail slit open the shrink-wrap cover of the Styrofoam cup, and he took from his pocket an aluminum fork he stole from the canteen. As he fished the curds into his mouth, they gushed with the holy taste of rosewater. When the curds were done, he let himself drink the buffalo milk left in the cup, and, for the rest of the ride, Narayan could taste the grease on his lips.
The driver took the highway until he couldn’t and then pulled onto the city streets, pushing past fish markets and student cafés and department stores, past the boulevards of crumbling Victorian buildings—old warhorses of colonial administration—until he reached the shabbiest part of the city, where the only streets were alleys and he was sure Narayan would get lost.
Along the gangly lanes, carts and scooters rumbled forth. All along were blocks upon blocks of flimsy commerce, a refugee camp for capitalism: slim booths of corrugated steel that were manned by small men with oiled mustaches and sallow eyes, selling cigarettes, shoe polishes, magazines, or chicken meat. The booths were brightened with painted signs and strung lights and loudspeakers playing old-movie music. Shrill boys and girls crowded the taxi, slapping at the windows for change.
The poverty made Narayan regret his visit. But he had been regretting it already. At breakfast with Sunita and the children, Meena and Sankat, and on the route to work with Jagan, the family’s driver, their pleasantries all seemed more pointed, their questions inquisitorial. At work, Narayan had advocated for a promising M&A proposal that had come over the transom from Sweden, and it was passed over without even a murmur. Of course his colleagues couldn’t take his views seriously, he thought; they knew exactly what he would be getting up to.
Yet once the cab pulled into the proper block, Narayan’s anxiety turned into delight. No one here would know him but everyone he passed he wanted to meet, to press them close and hear their stories and thank them for being alive. And finally spotting the address he needed—a hostel sporting a red-and-white sign with a Mercedes symbol and the title hotel discotek—his joy turned into something better. His body was forced to walk when he wanted to bolt.
Though the desk clerk never bothered to ask, Narayan offered up a fake name and paid for eight hours. Up four rickety flights of stairs and through the hallway, until finally into the room, which was small and dusty, made of white-painted cinder blocks, but better than he expected. By way of decoration, there was a freshly painted aluminum dresser bolted to the wall. Through the floor, there came up the smell of gasoline from the streets and the smell of garlic and onions from the mess hall below. Narayan turned on the AC and pulled out his special prepaid phone to make the call.
At least an hour passed before Vik came. As usual, he offered no apology except to say he was coming from the gym. Americans.
Vik dumped his bag on the dresser and took out this month’s copy of Filmfare from its sheath. Vik did nothing until Narayan showed him the money, and then he emptied the little tea bag onto the glossy faces of Kajol and Rani and diligently milled the white mound into strips. As the benefactor, Narayan took the prerogative of the first line, Vik the next, and they tallied off.
Narayan had to hold his nose to keep it from going numb; inside his nostrils, the powder was clean and cold and sharp—a solar panel shattered, a drift of glass floating through outer space.
“Finally benched 150 today,” Vik said.
“What?” Narayan asked.
“The gym. Bench-pressed 150.”
“Don’t be a bitch.”
Narayan leaned against the wall for ballast. Vik went back to the dresser. As always, he was the covetous one. He swept up the remnants with his fingertips, rubbing them into his gums.
“Christ,” Vik said as he collapsed onto the bed. Then he took off his sweatshirt and turned to Narayan with the most terrible smile.
The charter flight from Calcutta to Delhi was running late. The Delhi Zoo staff was furious. Bengalis were often late, but the dereliction here was of a different order. Since noon, the staffers had been waiting in the sun beside a strip of flattened wheat that an enterprising farmer had mowed into his crops. Their Jeep had a liter bottle of Bisleri that someone had left behind, and they had been parceling out sips of the quite-warm water. They couldn’t use a proper airport because they were waiting for contraband. They had cut a deal with the park rangers in the Sundarbans, and they were sure they were getting rooked.
The delay, though, was sincere. Over Benares, a summer storm had taken hold, interrupting the flight path. The rain had not yet started but there was much lightning. Whenever the zoo staff tried to radio the plane for updates, its requests were censored with static.
It was an Aeroflot transport plane from the 1971 war with Pakistan. Though retrofitted with the latest Mahalakshmi polyurethane insulation and wiring, the treatments hadn’t quite set. In the subzero temperatures, the coating for the wiring turned brittle and started to flake off. With the gusts of turbulence, the exposed bits of wiring made contact, and soon the cockpit was as bright as Diwali, with warning lights for several circuit systems, from the cargo hold to the gasoline filtration, indicating possible shortages.
The pilots decided to fly over the storm, but it was too late. As the plane climbed, so did the difference in air pressure between inside and out. The differential grew until the plane became a bomb: With its lock compromised, the cargo door blew open and the cage exploded out of the hull.
The fall triggered an adrenaline response in the sedated tiger. When it woke up, it had never felt so cold in its life. Icy drifts roved along its fur. The air was moving too fast for it to breathe; its ears were filling with wind, its eyes turning numb, crystalline.
Yet as it sped through herds and herds of clouds, the tiger’s cage floated about like an aura. At the edges of the tiger’s body, the fur fluttered in the air, but at the center, it felt still. The cold air underneath was full, replete, a tuffet on which the tiger could rest.
Once the shock of its predicament wore off, the tiger managed to bend its neck down, pushing its head against the gale, and what it saw was something marvelous. The entire world was rising up to meet it, a world that turned bigger with every second, and that seemed utterly new—one that was flat and boundless, cleansed of prey and shadow and anything else familiar, except the sylvan glimmer of the Ganges.
Sunday morning, Meena was pushing Sankat on the swing, and from his study, Narayan could see that the lemon trees in the courtyard were beginning to bloom, little lumps of yellow fruit weighing down the branches. He wouldn’t have minded a lemon now, a piece of fruit from his property split into a cordial yellow star. He had been up working since the dawn and his mouth was stale with the taste of instant coffee. As a boy, he’d eat them like apples, rind and all, just to make his friends laugh, until he saw what their laughter really meant. Sometimes, Sunita would forget to take out the seeds when she made lemon pickles, and his mother would pick them out of her mouth with aplomb. But now for the taste of a lemon, he could suffer a pip or two.
To everyone’s surprise, Narayan’s most of all, the Mahalakshmi board had approved his proposal to sell one of its formaldehyde plants to the Swedish concern. The study was now warm with the heat from his computers. Before him stretched an adamantine panorama of finance, eight lithe flat-screen monitors with inflation rates, asset-depreciation rates, index averages for the main bourses. Commodity prices. EBITDA. All numbers, but there was an art to finance as there was an art to everything, the art of attention, of knowing what people wanted to know.
Today though, he did not believe he knew what people wanted to know. If brought off, the deal would improve his life, but not change it. His mother was in the next room, murmuring along to her devotional programs, watching some saffroned pundit to learn more about the values of prayer and peace, as if her life ever lacked for either. I used to be better at maths, he thought.
A knock on the door. Sunita entered and sat on Narayan’s lap and nestled against his neck. “I’m fucked,” she said.
“You’re not.” She was organizing a fundraiser for the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve.
“I am. The spring gala is months away, but every caterer, every musician I’ve called is already booked. Weddings.”
“Next week. I’ll have time next week to sort it.”
“No, it’s all right. I can do it.” She held him tighter. “I just want to sleep. And run away. I want to run away while sleeping.”
“Okay.” His hand was now on the small of Sunita’s back. “When they send me to Sweden, come with me.”
“Perfect. We’ll find a nice ice floe. I want to be set adrift.”
“I’m serious. You should come.”
“Just the two of us. Amma will look after Meena and Sankat.”
“Meena will fuss.”
“She’ll adjust. We’ll go. We can walk on fee-jords. Eat kippers.”
“We’ll see the northern lights.”
“I want to do that, actually.”
“We can see Ibsen.”
Narayan was now beginning to respond to the soft warmth of his wife’s weight. They both noticed, but decided the mood was more quizzical than lustful. She kissed him on the cheek and got up.
“Ibsen was from Norway,” Sunita said.
Narayan returned home well past dinnertime. He told Sunita it was because the Swedes had finally signed the letter of intent for the formaldehyde-plant acquisition (which they had, actually). Sunita told the children to stop homework because it was time for ice cream. The maid brought out brass goblets with toothpaste-green scoops of pistachio ice cream, and the family sat in front of the television to watch L’il Champs.
Narayan swirled the ice cream in his bowl while his children watched other children sing filmi songs of heartbreak and woe to the jackbooted judgments of former industry stars. It was a weekly pleasure for Narayan and Sunita to watch Meena and Sankat rehearse the selfsame love songs they’d listened to in university.
In bed, Sunita proposed the celebration should continue. She finished quickly and he carried on. She asked him to let her do something special, “anything.” “It’s okay,” he said. She touched his face and kissed his forehead. She probably thought he was still worried about the Swedish deal. She couldn’t even tell he was gloating.
Vik was the neighbors’ nephew. Vik Malhotra-Epstein, the son of doctors Ravi Malhotra and Judith Epstein of Millbrae, California. Having twice failed out of the electrical-engineering program at Stanford, Vik had come to recuperate with his uncle and aunt, Sanjay and Veena. He was a slender young man, taller than Narayan by a couple of inches, although this was only obvious in bed because Vik slouched. Faint, long hairs were starting to adorn Vik’s chest and, to his consternation, his shoulders. He also had a few pocks of acne on the cheek and back, which were usually peeling under the stress of whatever skin treatments he subjected them to. Otherwise, his skin was smooth and the color of milky coffee, and he had won the lottery by inheriting his mother’s blue eyes. Not a handsome boy, but there were handsome things about him.
On his way to meet Vik that afternoon, Narayan was certain the affair would come to an end. In the weeks before, Vik’s texts had strayed from suggestions of Thursday rendezvous to Friday matinees, Saturday museum visits, and even excursions out of Calcutta altogether. Having deflected the invitations as best he could, Narayan would have to next tell Vik that he could not attend Sunita’s gala next door. It would not go well for Narayan. There had even been an omen: For the first time, Narayan was the one who was late, kept away because the canteen by their meeting place, the Hotel Rolls-Roice, had attracted the attention of the police.
“Obviously,” Vik said. “It would be completely disrespectful.”
It had taken Narayan only a little while to understand Vik was not actually agreeing with him.
“Coward,” “liar,” “cheat”: Vik hurled invectives while Narayan stood by the window in the corner. The window was Plexiglas and, through the translucent wafer, Narayan could hear the police outside the halal canteen next door. Best he could tell, they were telling the owner to shut it down; there were reports of a gas leak. The owner scoffed: “What leak, I’ve been serving customers all day.” To prove his point, he lit a match in the captain’s face. The police tried to arrest the owner, but his family members came out in support. Both sides were shouting at each other; whatever was going to happen now would take forever.
Narayan translated the Bengali scene for Vik, who looked at him as if the arrest were his fault, too. Narayan thought of leaving, but the family members were now taking out their cell phones, waving them at the officers as if they were little glass Korans. They were threatening to put the officers in the news for their corruption. The family’s threat was not necessarily idle, given publishing standards these days; lest he be caught in an errant camera shot, Narayan had to stay put. He did not defend himself because that would only anger Vik more. In fact, in his pocket, Narayan had a gift for Vik, a twenty-four-karat gold chain with a tiny platinum om, a cheeky yet thoughtful souvenir of Bengal. But now the gift would look only like a bribe; and besides, Narayan now didn’t want to give it.
Instead, he found himself telling Vik a secret. Before they got married, Sunita asked Narayan to look closely at her left hand. He did and saw nothing. She asked him to look again and pointed out a scarcely noticeable growth, a hard bump at the base of her thumb that, she said, was actually a vestigial sixth finger. As a girl, Sunita tried to nick it off with a butter knife; even then she knew women could go unwed for much less.
“But she’s beautiful,” Vik said. He asked for more, and Narayan told him about their first flat on Chittaranjan Avenue, how one month, they had to cook dinner by burning newspapers because they were skint for gas—Narayan’s only relief was that Sunita never once suggested borrowing money from their parents.
“You’re such a pointless bastard,” Vik said, laughing. It was remarkable. If Narayan could use his own family, his own marriage, to seduce Vik, he was capable of anything.
They wrestled against each other for hours, their limbs akimbo and slick with sweat until they were both seized with impatience. Vik stretched a sheer-blue polyurethane condom over Narayan, and Narayan turned him around and eased in. As they adjusted to each other and grew more confident, a gorgeously dynamic equilibrium took hold. Vik had to gather his arms around his head to keep from banging into the headboard. The condom was starting to tear but Narayan didn’t stop. The metronomic sound of his hips punching against Vik, Vik’s constant demands for his “curry cock,” the scent, first a barely tolerable appendage to the act, then something worthy of its own attention (a book from Narayan’s study, Casino Royale: “the tang of rape”). Narayan was exhilarated, he was chased, he was both courting and evading his sense of self-disgust.
The evening of Sunita’s gala, and Narayan’s home looked splendid. Normally, the building seemed as somber as a bank or an embassy. Its architect was inspired by Louis Kahn’s designs for the National Assembly in Dhaka, and his vision was a concrete idyll of long gray slabs lightened by stretches of brown smoked-glass windows. But at sundown, the concrete could have been stone, the torch lights along the driveway and the verandah made the walls bloom with the play of pink light, and the evening promised a night as festive as a wedding.
In the master bedroom, Narayan sat on his bed in a tuxedo shirt and socks. With his laptop on the dresser, he was watching and rewatching a YouTube video of how to tie a bow tie. The tuxedo was Narayan’s concession to Sunita; the video’s host, an old, faltering Brit in evening tails, kept insisting it was as simple as tying shoelaces. It felt like tying rose petals; the silk wilted in Narayan’s hands with the least pressure, every knot a bouquet of asymmetry.
His feet could feel minute pulses in the marble, the clatter and chatter of his houseguests. Once he opened the bedroom door, he could hear a piano gently vamping along the evening.
At least he could be certain Vik was not downstairs. They hadn’t spoken to each other in months. Narayan had no idea why, only that one Thursday, Vik did not show up. All of Narayan’s subsequent and frantic texts and calls went unanswered.
It was not truly ironic, Narayan believed, that he should feel aggrieved by Vik’s infidelity. Narayan wasn’t really cheating on Sunita—even if he confessed, she wouldn’t have understood, it would have been like telling her he spent his evenings raping banyan trees. Whereas he understood exactly what Vik was doing.
It was always the smokers who had sex first. That had been the rule at university. He had met Sunita at the University of Calcutta, and they were friends as Calcutta boys and girls were friends back then, as part of the same group of fifteen to twenty confidantes who would take lunch together in the school mess and go to movies and other outings. A few in the group would go further, pairing up, having one-on-one dinners, and even more, but for the rest, they had no idea about anything. Genitalia were a mere rumor, not to be confirmed even after the first months of marriage.
Narayan and Sunita were not among the smokers. They were right in the moral middle; they had bonded over that, sharing sarcastic asides with each other in the canteen as they watched their more infamous friends, like Rohit and Nalini, feed each other chicken kebabs, drink beer, smoke beedies, make nonveg jokes, and generally behave like coolies. They were also readers both, and they traded paperbacks (P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie of course, but also Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins). Another good fact for them was that, though they both did well in university, she did slightly better, and he wasn’t at all resentful. They both read economics and shared their notes, Schumpeter on creative destruction, Keynes on the “animal spirits.” Narayan’s and Sunita’s parents knew one another well; her parents had come to Calcutta from Benares, where she was born and where Narayan’s uncle was one of their close friends. So when Narayan’s mother approached Sunita’s mother, the adults agreed that the alliance made sense. Narayan knew he could have done much worse.
From palling and joking to kissing and more, marriage was a transition beyond their imaginations. There were so many emotions they knew they were supposed to have, and they didn’t seem to have any of them. His cheeks were peppered with blackheads, and there was a small tuft of hair outside his left nostril; she knew her face must have similar surprises for him. Each time he neared her lips, neither of them could stop giggling. They couldn’t ignore how their tender eyes now seemed gargantuan and their young foreheads prodigious, how oblong their noses were; they expected intimacy and found Easter Island. Even when they calmed down and the kissing began in earnest, they were still too ticklish to do more. Once when they were making love, early in the marriage—and early in the morning, when they were too sleepy to be nervous—she had contrived positions so that she was on top. This was unusual and encouraging to him, so he whispered in her ear something bold. She froze; she covered herself as if she’d been thrown onto a stage, she would not look at him. He had to sit up and embrace her and kiss her and assure her that he was not truly a bastard; they carried on (this was how Meena was conceived). The next morning, before they left the bedroom for breakfast, she asked him, very shyly, if he would never, ever ask for something like that again. He agreed, but only to appease her. Narayan did not even remember what he’d asked.
Being scorned had turned out to be useful for Narayan. In the years after Vik left him, he had single-handedly ruined the Swedish formaldehyde-plant acquisition by insisting the Swedes buy the plant with cash, instead of their own stock. The rumors at Mahalakshmi were that Narayan was soon to be sacked, and, because he believed them as much as anyone else, Narayan had revised the protocols for the commodity-hedging programs to sell when they would normally buy. When the global equity markets plummeted, the Swedish company’s stock price dwindled to a third of its original value, and Narayan was recognized as a prophet for his sabotage. Narayan was appointed deputy comptroller, overseeing coatings, insulation, and adhesives, and his success in cutting manufacturing costs placed him in line for the CFO position.
Meanwhile, his children’s heights advanced like calendars and Sunita’s conservation work earned her a seat on the board of the Sundarbans preserve. Yet for all his fortune, every time he received an invitation from Vik’s uncle to come over, he would walk through his neighborhood wondering if he should kill himself on the way.
The thought was idle. It came to him because it seemed like the sort of thing he should be thinking about; it seemed more the thing he should do, the honorable thing, than what he wanted to do. If anything, he was curious. He knew that the meeting with Sanjay would be terrible—Sanjay might have even called the police (Indian Penal Code 377: “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature … shall be punished”)—but he wanted to see just how terrible it would be.
If he wanted to live or die, it was not simply a matter of choice; he had to take action, too, and in the suburbs, no matter how much he wanted to do it, he could not. He could throw himself in front of a car, but they were not fast enough. The knives in the kitchen cupboard were too dull, the roofs of his neighbors’ houses were too low. No matter what he felt, he was meant to be alive. A fact that might have heartened him, were it not true for his neighbors, too.
Finally, he heard from Vik again, via e-mail:
Hey stranger. Thought/hoped you’d never hear from me, eh? Well just wanted to say sorry for the kind of shitty way I left things. You’re very, not young I guess, but new at things, and I should have treated you better.
And I’m also writing you to thank you. When I left you, it was to meet up with a boy from college. We were going on a rail-tour of the North, and I was going to just try the same b.s. I tried to pull with you. Somehow, though, on the way to Benares, Lucas saw through me.
And last week, he proposed. The wedding’s next year in Sausalito.
I know you’d never come, and this isn’t an invitation. But though it’s fucked up to say, you did bring us together. So I have to be grateful to you for that. You will always be in my prayers.
Four years on, and not even marriage—“marriage”—could dilute Vik’s talent for condescension.
Narayan often visited bookstores in other suburbs, where he read from books he’d never have the courage to buy, various tomes on the theory and practice of homosexuality. They all described homosexuality as some form of lack—not enough attention from the father; too little physical exercise; too small a penis (“a game for losers”—J. M. Coetzee, Youth). The books were a relief: Whatever he was reading, he was not reading about himself. Instead, his queerness felt like far, far too much. To think of Vik and their bouts, it was manic, it was extravagant, a tumor of the imagination. It was as if he’d woken up one morning and started speaking Russian, fluently—not only speaking but writing wonderfully eloquent and rich Russian poems, with intricate meters and syntax in which every thought was an anthem, poems so widely and dearly loved in Moscow, a city he had never even visited, that babushkas, politburo members, street touts, and buskers all agreed there was nothing in life that could not be found in Narayan’s poems. One night an illiterate; the next, Pushkin.
On a business trip to a city similar to Guangzhou, but not, in the bar of a business hotel, Narayan saw a woman who looked exactly like Sunita—at least they shared the same slight overbite and taste in pearls. The familiarity gave him the courage to approach the woman. He even told her that she reminded him of his wife.
She smiled and told him, “I assure you, I can do much, much better.”
“But not tonight,” Narayan said.
She looked down the bar, at the Europeans and Chinese salarymen, all ruddy and boisterous, and smoothed his forearm and offered him the famous lyric: Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani (My heart belongs to India).
“What do you do?” he asked.
“You don’t really want to talk about that,” she said.
They went to her hotel room because it was on the lower floor. She pushed him through the door onto the couch. She got on top of him and slid off her suit jacket. “Do you like these tits,” she asked. He ripped off the top buttons and went at as much of her breasts as her meager black bra would allow. “Grab my ass,” she said, and he did. “Now, kiss my neck,” and he did. She leaned over him flatly and slid off her panties.
“Touch me,” she said. “So do you like my tits?”
“My legs, they are fit, aren’t they?”
“You sound unsure.”
“No, no. Yes. You’re beautiful. You’re so beautiful.”
“Say that again.”
“Do you want to spend the night? I want you to spend the night.”
“Can you keep a secret?”
“Of course. I’m married, remember?”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean another secret.”
“Yes, you can trust me.”
“I thought so,” she said. “I am the goddess Saraswati.”
Why not. Narayan was too aroused to care. He reached up and tried to take off her blouse. She laughed and told him to stop. He didn’t and she got up from the couch.
“Listen to me,” she said, but he did it again. So she clapped her hands.
The noise summoned a halo—a sheer circle of swan light welded to the back of her head, a brightness against which the walls of the hotel room shimmered and buckled. Narayan was terrified, and he knelt down to pray.
“Darling, don’t be stupid,” she said.
He stood up and continued to chant.
“You should really stop,” she said. Then she retired to the bedroom.
Narayan congratulated himself on his luck. His teeth started to chatter with adrenaline. He knew he would want to remember every aspect of the night, from the hotel room to her drink orders to her perfume to the black carry-on parked by the hotel door to the piles of wine glasses and room-service trays stacked on top of the coffee table. He had not been so alert even when his children were born, but, by definition, this would be the greatest moment of his life.
Surely she might give him some market tips.
“Well, come in,” she said. He opened the bedroom door and saw her in repose on a bed strewn with lotus petals, naked. He stood about a foot from the bed and realized he was too afraid to go any farther. As soon as he registered that she was naked, he covered his eyes with his hands. Still, he had seen enough to recognize that she was lovely, certainly the loveliest woman he had ever seen. But she also did look, simply, like a woman. He had seen women before and now he had seen the loveliest.
She asked him why he was so shy now. He said, “I haven’t been to temple—I haven’t said a prayer—since I was a boy.”
“I see.” She crawled over to him. “Well, you’re not an atheist now, are you?” She asked, fondling his crotch with her hand—one of four.
“Well, what about your husband?” Narayan reminded her.
She smiled. “You think he doesn’t know?”
Her touch was warm, kindling, but …
“You’re distracted,” she said.
He assured her he was not, and he closed his eyes and breathed deeply to concentrate.
“Here, let me try this,” she said. “This was how Vik did it?”
Narayan jumped back, but realizing what he had just done, he apologized.
She didn’t mind. She smiled and started again. He started concentrating again, too; he even thought of Vik, but it didn’t help. Though indisputably kind and meaning well, she still was not getting it quite right.
“Well, you’ve got an early flight, so why not call it a night,” she finally said.
He got ready to leave, and she then told him, “The reason prayer doesn’t work for you is, you don’t want the things you want badly enough.”
She also warned him that the Chinese central bank would soon raise interest rates and Mahalakshmi’s insulation division was in dire need of cost-cutting.
The next morning, Narayan was certain Sunita was pregnant.
In the night, Narayan got a call from Vik’s uncle, Sanjay.
“We didn’t know who else to talk to. I can’t reach my brother,” Sanjay said.
“We got a call,” Veena said from the background. “From a hospital in Benares.”
“Some fellow, a … colleague, Lucas, called us,” Sanjay said.
“Vik was swimming in the Ganges,” Veena said.
“And something horrible—” Sanjay said.
“I can’t understand!” Veena said.
“He’s gone,” Sanjay said.
“A tiger!” Veena said.
“From the sky,” Sanjay said.
Once the Swedish deal finally closed, Narayan made good on his promise to take Sunita to Stockholm. They did not see the northern lights. But they listened to the Stockholm Philharmonic and drank countless cups of kaffe and developed tastes for marzipan and aquavit, and, on weekend afternoons, they walked across several of the city’s bridges, holding hands and counting Lutheran spires and watching the old Baltic light canter atop the water.
While Sunita showered and rested, Narayan went for a walk. He saw a rare thing, or something that struck him as rare. A vagrant, a homeless woman huddled among cardboard boxes at the edge of the bridge where he was walking. He’d heard her mutterings even before he saw her, but he did not walk away. She had the charisma of someone in extremis. Her thin blond hair was frayed, and her eyes swayed as if she were seasick; her clothes and the cardboard boxes had been soiled. Even through the cold, he got a clear scent of musk and cabbage. He dropped some kronor by her feet, and she called him a “neger.” And faggot. And she was right. Anyone could see she was his better. Anyone could see that whatever she had done wrong, she was now paying much too hard a price. The central facts of her life were public: Anyone who saw her knew her misery was the world’s injustice. He envied her for that.
At dinner, as they were debating whether to get dessert, Sunita told him of some very exciting news from the conservation front. She took out her phone and showed Narayan an image. In the middle of a clearing surrounded by a mangrove thicket, there appeared to be a swift blur of bipolar fur. She told him that it was the first confirmed sighting in decades of a white tiger in the wild. Taken by an American couple on their honeymoon, a pair of schoolteachers from Montgomery, Alabama. Now patrols of rangers were roaming about the preserves to capture the animal before poachers found it.
The rangers hadn’t caught the animal yet, but they had seen it several times since. Apparently, they all agreed it was almost too mesmerizing to tranquilize—the tiger’s stride had a cadence, piano keys struck by a maestro’s hand. The park director told her that only once had he been near a similar animal, when he was a ranger in Mysore and a lion had escaped from a circus. After they had sedated the lion, he reached into the cage to ruffle its mane, and as soon as he felt the starchy hairs, his hand jumped back. He hadn’t expected the mane to feel so warm, and he understood he was being disrespectful.
As Sunita recounted this anecdote, recounted to her by a man who was recounting it to himself, Narayan suddenly understood that what he was hearing was not simply an anecdote, but a confession. Or a boast. The lightness in her voice, the enthusiasm, the nerves—whoever had told her this story was someone she was sleeping with.
He would have never expected it of her. He was proud of his wife. He hoped she did not feel guilty; he would have never wanted that for her. He wanted to talk about it with her, to give her advice, but she wouldn’t have liked that. He had to be quiet for her just as, after dinner, in bed, when Sunita whispered to him new things to try, Narayan pretended to be ignorant.