The Issue by Tanuj Solanki   after Alan Rossi’s ‘The Problem At Hand’
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They were both so scared of the frenetic movements of the fat lizard in their bedroom that they decided to spread a single mattress (the only one they had) on the living room floor. The mattress’ width enforced a kind of intimacy that was different from what had been available on the wider bed, so much so that they soon got talking, for the first time, about the biggest issue in their lives at that point. She told him that she really wanted to know how he felt about her going. Knowing that, was important for her. He told her that she was going and that was that. The important thing, he added, was whether she was sure she was going for the right reasons. Being practical. For example, how convinced was she that the programme would lead to bigger and better job prospects. That it would improve their finances in the medium term. She cut him short, telling him that first of all it needed to be clear that it was he who was making things difficult by not talking about the exact reasons why he was feeling what he was feeling. It was quite obvious that he wasn’t feeling all right. Instead, she emphasised, what he was doing at this point was to present his insecurity as her own doubt about her future, which wasn’t very helpful because of course she was a bit doubtful already and her decision to go was at some level a leap of faith also. The living room lights were switched off and in the darkness they heard each other breathe a couple of times before he told her that no, it was she who was making things difficult. Her decision to go would unsettle their current lives. He asked her if she agreed and she nodded and even in the darkness he knew that she had nodded because she was in his arms and he felt the movement on his shoulder. The most important thing, he told her, was if she was convinced that unsettling their current lives was worth the trouble, and that after the trouble was over their life together would be better than what they had right now. ‘Ideally, it shouldn’t be a leap of faith,’ he said. That he used the word trouble for her education, she told him, told her a lot. He tried to say something in response but she didn’t let him and silenced him by saying ‘one minute, one minute, one minute…’. How many times, she asked him then, had he been completely convinced of the outcome of any new step that he was taking in his life? Weren’t all new endeavours, she continued, leaps of faith to some degree, and if the world went by his logic, ideally there wouldn’t be anything new that anyone would ever strive for. He snorted. She told him that there was nothing worth snorting about in what they were discussing. Of course there was nothing wrong with doing new things, he told her. But their situation was different. They had to attempt to put some reason behind it. They were married. And need he also remind her what that meant. It meant that their lives were tied. ‘The expense of your education is big,’ he said, ‘and while you’re sure that you’re going to finance it on your own and while that is something that I both admire and appreciate, there shouldn’t be any doubt that if the new endeavour fails, the liability of that failure will be shared by both of us, and by our marriage. To the extent that our lives are inextricably tied, you are also deciding for me.’ At this, she lifted her head slightly and tapped his hand so that he could take it out from under her. They now lay such that they both faced the dark ceiling above where they both saw little else but a recurrent gleam on a blade of the ceiling fan as it completed each rotation, multiple times a second, such that the gleaming looked to them like a flickering light, and they both thought of that flickering as the light at the end of a metaphorical tunnel; but since neither of them communicated this idea to the other, their biggest moment of connection that night, in which their inner lives had somehow led  to the exact same thought, and the astounding beauty of this concordance, the stunning humanity of it, even, was lost to the universe and lost to their story as well. She asked him, in a soft voice, why he doubted her reasons. ‘I wonder what reasons you think I have,’ she said. ‘What do you think your reasons are?’ he asked instead. She told him that the university she had been admitted to was the best in the world to study what she wanted to study, and that she wanted to study at this stage in her life because she still had a lot to learn, and that she wanted to attend the university because it had a name and that name did, in most cases, boost the careers of those who attended it. She also made it clear that when she had asked him about his feelings a few minutes before, it was not to initiate this interrogation of her motivations but to know what emotions the knowledge of their imminent year-long separation evoked in him. ‘It was an emotional question,’ she said. If he had said that he was sad because he was going to miss her, it would have been enough. ‘That part is true,’ he said, ‘of course’. But the real thing, he told her, the real thing was that in an ideal world he wouldn’t want her to go or not to go because of him, but then he also understood that her decision to go had not much to do with him, and that fact hurt simply because they were married and her decision left it open for him to interpret that she was being selfish. She told him that her decision to go was of course her decision alone. But even in decisions that were completely hers, was it wrong to expect his support? Was it wrong to expect that he would stand by her and give her strength and even help her in the details? His support could not be a compulsion for him, he answered. ‘You do realise that support here means nothing more than enthusiastically agreeing with your decision to go,’ he said. So had he decided not to be supportive, she asked him. And were they at least agreeing to disagree, were they at least at a point where it was clear that she wanted to go and he did not want her to go? And would he mind checking what percentage of his opinion was due to his irritation at her having made an independent decision. ‘Don’t tangle me in the stupid patriarchy web,’ he responded. ‘Your independence is not in question’. Then it must be the financial strain, she told him, the strain that wasn’t present but he feared would be upon him in case she didn’t get a job with a salary fat enough to pay-off the loan quickly. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that is part of it’. And the fact that she didn’t ever think of this in this light. And the fact that a big salary job for her would mean a job in the US. And the fact that he would have to follow her to the US. That he would have to leave his job in India. That he would have to leave his life in India. That this was not just about her doing a one-year program in an ivy-league school but about the two of them committing to a certain kind of life for the rest of their lives, and also saying goodbye to the life that they already had, which, he felt compelled to point out, wasn’t a bad life at all. ‘If you haven’t thought about all of this,’ he said, ‘then is it wrong to say that you’ve been a bit selfish? Or maybe selfish is too offensive a word. Let’s just say you were too happy with your achievement to pause and think what it really meant.’ She told him that she had thought about it all and that she had wanted to talk about it with him. But he never seemed in the mood, and even today it was she who had initiated the discussion. ‘Your silence,’ she said, ‘or rather your reluctance to talk about things, is itself a hurdle, do you realise that? You’ve drowned, I think deliberately, in your phones and screens recently. When I come to you to talk about something, you prefer to stick to nods and grunts, as if words are too risky.’ He told her that this silence was his submission. It was the support that she wanted. ‘This is the problem, this,’ she said. She told him that he was extreme, that he either had to be at a high moral ground, telling her what marriage was and what she was failing to understand of it, or he had to be the silent sufferer, mutely watching her trample over his idea of his life. For him, it was always victor or victim, never a partner. And when he played victim, he still expected her to comprehend his imaginary loss without even talking to him and then also to change the things that might turn that imaginary loss around. ‘So you see,’ she said, ‘you are a victor even you play victim’. She then told him that the final point to be made from her side was that she wouldn’t go if he didn’t want her to go but it would make her sad. The fan rotated as before. He rose and switched on a light. ‘We aren’t sleeping,’ he said, ‘and I prefer to see you while we talk.’ Then he lay back on the mattress in his earlier position, in which he wasn’t really looking at her but at the ceiling fan. He then told her that if she decided not to go because he didn’t want her to and would then become sad, it would be the worst thing that she could possibly do to him. He clarified that he had never said that he did not want her to go. He had never said those words. He had reservations, and they hadn’t talked about them. And, yes, it was his fault. But the situation was now at a point where he couldn’t feel good with any outcome. And he certainly didn’t want her to be sad because that would in turn make him sad and condemn them to live with the potentiality of a different life always hanging like a sword above their marriage. There would be resentment that could linger till old age. At least with her going and him following her they would always have a life to return to if the new one failed. ‘You should go,’ he said, ‘and we will find a way.’ She didn’t know what to say and so she turned towards him and whispered, ‘I love you’. It took a quarter of a minute of inner turbulence before he decided that he did not really want to respond with a ‘me too’. She put her arm over his chest and came closer. ‘I really want to do this,’ she said. He didn’t change his position and continued to look at the ceiling fan. ‘I’m scared,’ he whispered, so softly that she could not hear it and asked him to repeat what he had said; but when he repeated those words, I’m scared, a bit louder than earlier this time, they could not convey the same vulnerability that they had carried in their first utterance. Just then she shook his arm. He looked towards her and saw her pointing, with her eyes, in the other direction. He turned and saw how two dark beady eyes, flat on the floor, were staring right at them from a distance of a meter or so. The sight sent a chill down his spine. The eyes moved a couple of tiny steps in their direction. They jumped up from the mattress and saw the full form to which those eyes belonged. There was a long moment of stillness, in which neither party moved. Then, in a moment of the kind he had never experienced before, something got inside him and he picked up a chappal from the floor and slapped it right on the flat thing’s spine, once, twice, thrice, again and again, till he could hear her shrieks and feel her arms pulling him away and could see the bloody mess that he had made on the tiles – a body squashed and unable to move but breathing, and the tail saying no, no, no.

 

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Tanuj Solanki's is the author of Neon Noon, Fourth Estate, 2016.His fiction has been published in Caravan, BLink, and previously in Out of Print. A collection of short stories, Compassionate Grounds, is due in January 2018.