Sleep has fled Peter’s eyes long ago but the lethargy in his body does not permit him to even turn on his side. The early morning cold makes him shiver but he is too lazy to pull up the sheet. The sound of splashing water tells him that Teresa must be in the bathroom. Peter is irritated. My job is to fill up that big copper bhann—and it is her privilege to drain it! He dare not voice his thoughts, though, because it would draw this retort from Teresa: ‘Yes! Just as it is my job to earn the money and your privilege is to spend it!’
Teresa enters the bedroom. Peter looks at her through sleepy eyes. Teresa is in a camisole which sticks to the wet parts of her body. Taking a long wooden rod, she reaches for a towel from the clothesline, strung up high. As she stretches her arms, the petticoat armholes open to reveal…! Peter shuts his eyes. He looks again. With the upward movement of her arms, her slip has ridden up her legs, exposing a generous portion of her thighs. Like the tender white inner trunks of banana suckers, Peter thinks, gaping. He is aroused and wide awake now.
Teresa wipes her face and neck. The uneven texture of the towel leaves her fair skin slightly flushed.
Her mother-in-law is in the kitchen making tea, noisily banging the pans. She believes that since even a finger can dent aluminium, there was no point in being careful. Teresa has stopped wincing at the noise, philosophizing that she can’t afford to buy stainless steel utensils—not in this life at least. Peter, of course, keeps quiet, reasoning that since he does not contribute to the kitty, he has no right to comment.
‘P-e-d-r-u!’ yells Teresa.
Other wives fondly anglicize their husbands’ names—Antonio, for example, is called Tony; and Vitorino becomes Victor. But this woman insists on calling poor Peter ‘Pedru’. Peter resents it acutely! But is she bothered?
‘It’s nearly eight, Pedru!’
Peter is irritated. Can’t she wake up earlier? This is becoming a habit with her.
‘Get up! Get up, Pedru! It is time for the train. Drop me to the station. Quick!’ Striding towards him, she stamps her feet and pulls him by the hand. ‘Get up you lazy man!
If I miss the train, you won’t take the boss’s firing!’
Peter reluctantly gets out of bed and shuffles to the bathroom. He splashes cold water on his eyes to cool his rising temper. Finishing, he comes inside, angrily pulls on his trousers, shrugs himself into a shirt and grumbles, ‘I can’t even sleep in peace. Why can’t she get up earlier and walk to the station?’
But Teresa must have heard him grumbling. She walks up to Peter and berates him. ‘Admirable courage you have to grumble! You shameless idler! All you do is sit at home and eat. Is it too much to just drop me by cycle to the station once in a while when I’m late? Does it strain your back? I work all day to feed you, only to take crap from you people! I tell you, I’m fed up of you all. I’ve ended up in hell after marrying you!’
‘You wanted a love marriage, didn’t you?’ A voice from the kitchen calmly adds fuel to the fire.
Her mother-in-law’s gibe is more than she can take. Teresa breaks into a sob and her eyes well up with tears.
In a better mood now, Peter slips on his sandals, gulps down his tea, and is ready to leave. The tip of Teresa’s nose now competes with her cherry-red blouse. Even her ear lobes are scarlet. She’s wearing a tight skirt that fits snugly round her hips. Peter’s frown deepens in disapproval of her figure-hugging skirt and sleeveless blouse. He wheels his cycle out. Mounting it, he puts one foot on the pedal, the other on the threshold and waits for Teresa. This was how he used to wait for her at the station two years ago. He was in love with her then…
‘What’s the problem now? Hurry up!’ Peter bellows.
High-heeled shoes clicking smartly on the cement floor, Teresa comes out of the house and sits on the cross-bar of the bicycle. As they move, Teresa’s memory goes back to those days…
Peter would patiently wait for me with his cycle early in the morning outside my house to give me a lift to the station. Without fail. Every day. Over my protests. A funny thing had happened one day. He had arrived early in the morning, as usual, and had started taking his customary laps on the bike round my house. Having come at seven-thirty and, on seeing no sign of me till eight-thirty, he had begun to get anxious. Just then, I returned from Mass. On seeing me he’d hurried to my side and asked, ‘You haven’t yet gone to office today, Teresa!’ Barely stifling a laugh, I’d said, ‘Today is Sunday, isn’t it?’ How comic he’d looked then!
The memory makes Teresa laugh. Her laugh annoys Peter. Wasn’t this the same Teresa who was sobbing just a while ago? And now she’s giggling. What could have made her laugh? She’s probably thinking about someone in office! So was the weeping at home just play-acting?
As they neared the station, they see that the train is already at the platform. Peter instinctively pedals desperately and screeches to a halt at the end of the platform.
‘P-h-i-r-r!’ A shrill whistle sounds as the guard flags off the train. Leaping off the cycle, Teresa bounds away, clutching her bag tight. Running along the platform, she grabs hold of the hand-rail at the entrance of a carriage as the engine starts with a long toot. The train pulls away with Teresa hanging on. She makes a feeble attempt to climb in but her tight skirt hampers her. Alarmed, she hangs on to the bar for dear life as the train gathers speed. An alert man standing near the door sees her predicament and, putting his arm round her, he pulls her in. She doesn’t even glance in Peter’s direction. But Peter sees her smiling and thanking her young saviour.
‘Quick-witted fellow to pull her in like that! Fast reactions!’
‘Lucky guy! He enjoyed that!’
‘And so did the girl! Why else do they go to work?’
‘That’s a fact. Once you have a job, you can have all the fun you want and nobody will question you!’
Peter is seething with rage at the comments made by the onlookers on the platform. He wants to slap them, but there are four of them. Forget it!
He sets off on his bicycle, furious. Why can’t she leave a little earlier? Must she wear those ridiculously tight skirts? It’s fine for her, but I have to face the snide remarks from those louts. And that gigolo who pulled her in with his arm round her waist… He must have enjoyed it… Didn’t those chaps call him a lucky man. And Teresa? ‘The girls enjoy it. Why else do they go to work?’ is what they said. Enough is enough! I’m going to tell Teresa—no more work and no more tight skirts!
In fact, soon after their marriage, Peter had made it clear to Teresa that he did not approve of her wearing those tight-fitting skirts, but Teresa said that, as a receptionist, she was expected to be smartly turned out. One thing, though, is that she never wears such clothes in the house. Secretly, Peter wants her to wear body-hugging minis with daring sleeveless tops for him at home, but not to office. But Teresa doesn’t, assuming that Peter would disapprove. Poor Peter doesn’t have the courage to tell her what he really wants.
‘Peter!’ Guilherme calls out. Peter would have cycled on but he’s heard that Guilherme’s father has come down for good from East Africa only yesterday. He is curious to see what stuff he’s brought, so he turns his cycle around. Guilherme’s dad, in a colourful kitenge shirt favoured by Africa-returned Goans, is relaxing in an easy chair in the hall.
‘It’s Peter, isn’t it? How are you?’ He gets up and shakes hands with Peter. ‘So how are things? What are you doing now?’ he asks with a foreign accent.
‘Business.’ The reply springs to Peter’s lips, but he swallows it.
Usually, Peter puffs out his chest and says, ‘Business.’ And if anybody probes further with, ‘What business?’ he has a stock reply too, ‘All sorts of business—when the price of coconuts goes up, I trade in coconuts; during the watermelon season, I deal in watermelons; and, when nothing else is available, I even buy and sell fish.’
In actual fact, Peter has never done any business in his life. Ever since he scraped through the High School SSC exam, he’s worked just twice. The first was as a counter salesman in a pharmacy. It involved getting up early and cycling to Margao town. Soon after lunch, he had to rush back to work without his customary siesta. He would reach home well after eight in the night. The routine did not quite appeal to his indolent nature and, one day, after a dressing down from his boss for reporting late, he never went back. He didn’t even bother to claim his wages for the thirteen days that he had worked there. He decided that he would tell his mother, and whoever asked him, that he was going into business. He slipped Teresa the same line before getting married and, being deeply in love with him, she not only believed him, but was infinitely proud of him!
He had taken his second job for the sake of Teresa, once they were married. Teresa had cajoled her boss into giving Peter a job. Peter started work in a different department of the same company against his wishes. It meant getting up early, catching the train, rushing to office and writing with a pen the whole day long without a siesta of even five minutes after lunch. Wrestling with strange words like ‘freight’, ‘demurrage’, ‘filing’ ‘checking slip’, ‘statement’, ‘consignment’ gave him fever one day. The fever was a good enough excuse and he never went back.
‘You’re doing nothing at all?’ Guilherme’s father has seen through him. ‘You should work! At least join the ship!’ His words are like bitter medicine in his throat.
‘How do you manage without a job?’
‘His wife works,’ Guilherme pipes up helpfully, rubbing it in.
‘What? You remain idle and send your wife to work? Very bad! What sort of a man are you?’ he exclaims. ‘Never do that, my boy,’ he adds paternally, ‘or she’ll get too big for her boots. Women should be shown their place. A man should…’ He stops as Guilherme’s mother comes in.
Peter decides it’s time to leave. The truck with the luggage is expected any time. Lest he be asked to help unload it, Peter hurriedly takes their leave, picks up some fish at the village market, and goes home.
‘You’ve arrived just in time. I was hoping that you’d come.’ Peter’s mother greets him.
Silently picking up a pitcher, he goes to the well and begins to fill up the empty utensils. From past experience he knows that were he to baulk, it would only draw a sharp retort from his mother: ‘Why can’t you help? You’re doing nothing as it is!’ To which he would have no reply.
He lies down on the cot to take a nap, but he cannot sleep. Venomous little suspicions crowd his mind. What is Teresa doing at that moment? Giggling in the office? With the boss perhaps? Or the character who lifted her into the train? Who was the guy? She must know him. How well? Teresa’s sleeveless top, her tight skirt, the way he lifted her in with his arm around her, the snide remarks of the bystanders: ‘Lucky man! Women should not be let loose!’ These thoughts buzz around him like a swarm of angry bees.
‘Will you be eating today?’ His mother’s sarcastic voice breaks into his troubling thoughts.
His appetite isn’t affected, though. He eats well and has a royal nap.
When he wakes up at five in the evening, he is ushered into the real world by his mother. ‘Oh! So you’ve woken up at last. Where are you off to now? A man who can’t work or do business. And he’s gone and got married. He can neither take care of his wife, nor can he control her! Stylish lady! Look at her clothes and her hair—worse than a whore! She twirls her husband round her little finger and makes him dance to her tune. Watch her in action when she comes home in the evening! For her, the husband is an empty coconut and I, her sasumai, I am not her mother-in-law, I am cow dung!’
‘Shut up!’ Peter screams.
‘You can only tell me to shut up. Do you dare to say it to her, you coward? A real man would have slapped her and put her in her place. But you… I pray to the Lord to have pity on me and take me away soon, to free me from all this!’
Peter does not wait to hear any more of the usual litany. Rolling out his bike, he pedals hard in the direction of Caetan’s taverna. An animated round of tablam-khell is going on in the verandah. Accompanied by, ‘Ee-ree-reeree!’ the long bamboo dice are flung to the ground. The atmosphere is spirited and lively. Ordering a four-anna tot of feni, Peter takes his glass and joins the spectators.
‘Tabl… That’s it!’
‘Congratulations! That was good!’
The players move away, as do the spectators. Everybody talks at the same time.
Peter has begun to unwind a little in the relaxed, noisy atmosphere of the pub. Just then, Agnel claps his hands and, when he has everybody’s attention, he announces,
‘Listen, who was there at the station this morning as the Vasco train was pulling out?’
‘I was there!’ Martin exclaims.
‘Good! Anyone else?’ Agnel continues. Peter is wary. Agnel’s malicious tongue could be targeting him.
‘Listen! Our dear Bab-Peter’s beloved wife Bai-Teresa would have fallen under the train today!’
‘W-h-a-t?’ the crowd exclaims.
‘But she was very fortunate. Bai-Teresa’s gallant friend was travelling in the same compartment, just waiting for her, perhaps! Like a Hindi-movie hero, he bravely clamped his hand under her arm and pulled her into the train. Like this!’ Agnel enacted the scene for the audience with a flourish that infuriated Peter.
‘Mind your tongue, Agnel!’ warns Peter.
‘Am I exaggerating? Okay then, you tell it!’ Agnel sniggers.
‘You won’t get away with this!’ Peter shouts.
‘So! What will you do? Come out in front if you must yap!’ taunts Agnel as he pulls him forward.
Unable to back his empty bluster, Peter stays put.
‘What a tough guy! Flaunt those muscles to your wife, if you have the guts!’ Agnel rubs more salt into his wounds to the accompaniment of guffawing laughter.
I have to take all this because of that Teresa! Everyone disrespects me because of her! In the morning at the station; all those taunts! Guilherme’s father’s lecture! Mother’s jeers! And now this! I’m not going to remain quiet!
Peter downs another tot—an eight-anna one this time.
The evening train announces its arrival with a piercing toot just as Peter cycles his usual way to the station. As Teresa gets down, Peter glances up sharply towards the compartment. He spots the hero of the morning sitting at the window. As she sits on the cross-bar of the cycle, Peter feels that Teresa is positively glowing this evening. He senses his bile rising.
‘Pedru, you know, I was so scared this morning! If he hadn’t pulled me in, God knows what would have happened!’ Teresa relates, blissfully unaware of Peter’s darkening countenance. Or the artery that is pulsing wildly on his forehead. Or that his eyes have become bloodshot.
The cycle comes to a stop at their house. Both get down.
‘Pedru, tomorrow we’ll leave earlier! I don’t want to go through this…’
Before she can even comprehend what’s happening, both of Teresa’s cheeks turn crimson as Peter’s slaps fall on them. She shrieks in pain while her mother-in-law calmly takes in the scene from inside. Encouraged, Peter goes berserk, and pummels her cheeks, her nose, her back, her stomach, her hands, her face…
Courtesy: Live mint April 9 2015