Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 09/7/13 6:36 AM

Colours: A Story from Kith and Kin



Green vine. Beena had just turned 22. The first time was exciting in its own way, if exciting was the precise word she was looking for. It took place at Mon Repos, her grandmother’s house.  Beena and her mother Padmini came down from Hyderabad for the occasion. All was going swimmingly until  Beena got into a row with her mother who said the family astrologer had decreed  the
girl ought to wear a green sari when the boy came to see her. The colour green apparently signified the green light for a long and happy married life for the kanya, Old Baldy as the younger members of the family called him, had pronounced.

The man’s writ was like a royal decree for the elders of the Melekat clan. Never mind that she knew she looked positively bilious in any shade of green be it mint, olive, parrot, celadon or emerald. Green she was forced to wear.

Eventually she put on a mehendi green Kota sari, inappropriate for the chill winds that blew down through the Gap in the Western Ghats at that time of the year. Her mother who looked all set to impart last minute words of wisdom, took one look at her mutinous heart-shaped face and shut up. And Beena thanked god for small mercies. But Padmini did ensure Beena’s underskirt cut into the flesh at her trim waist; all the Melekat women tied their petticoats way too tight and what’s more, thought that was the best way to do it, too.

The potential groom was stocky, dark and anything but pleasant. He walked in with a ridiculous swagger and there was a decidedly pompous air about his portly person. His brother who accompanied him to the separate room where they were to converse in private — she would never know why the brother came along — was so much the better looking, the better behaved and
friendlier of the two. The brother and she found a lot of things to talk about while the `boy` sat there, a pasty smile that was probably his idea of conviviality, on his face. She contemplated switching her not inconsiderable charm onto the brother then decided against it. She was not up to the storms that would break in the family. As it is, her mother was in full Poor Padmini mode.
And when her mother got that way, it was wisest to put one’s head down and stay quiet.

The boy’s party left after a while and Beena first loosened the underskirt, rubbed some calamine on the weals at her waist, then went to sit on the swing under the sapota tree and twirl about a bit. The green sari, pretty in its own way, twirled in counter-clockwise direction to her slim body.

Would they force her to marry that insufferable man? Well if they did, she would embark on an affair with the brother, she decided. She laughed out aloud and saw a face at one of windows of The Retreat, the outhouse; the face ducked quickly out of sight. The family who now rented that house from her grandmother were big on staring, goggle-eyed and mute, staring continuously, aggravatingly, even infuriatingly. It was a very Mallu thing, staring people to near death, she knew, but still it irked the life out of non-resident Mallus like Beena.

“Did you wear green,“ Beena asked her grandmother. “When you were `seen` by Achachan? “

The older woman smiled, genuinely amused.  “ I don’t remember. I was sixteen and terrified. I remember Mrs Robbins my governess, asking to meet my husband and me wondering just how I was to address this stranger.“ And  all Beena could focus on then was the utterly incongruous image of a scared Ammini amma.

However, where the boy-seeing front was concerned that was that, quite literally so. No word fetched up. Not at Mon Repos, not when they were back home in Banjara Hills. Then her mother called the fellow’s mother to ask about the curious silence. He doesn’t want to marry now, they were told, the one sentence containing all the other paragraphs that stood poised like a huge tsunami about to break.

A pall of gloom descended momentarily on the house but then her mother most uncharacteristically joked that there were plenty of other fish in this sea for her pretty daughter. It helped that Beena was actually very nice looking, something more than pretty, though less than beautiful. Ammini amma, Beena’s grandmother, forbore to comment on the matter, something else Beena was grateful for. It also gave her another reason to absolutely adore the old woman.




She had turned 23 gracefully, literally on a pirouette, when the second proposal came right to their doorstep at Hyderabad, brought by the boy’s parents themselves in a dramatic departure from tradition. The elderly couple was sweet and fawned all over her, telling her over and over again that they thought she would be ideal for their son. She herself wavered between embarrassment and preening. He was an Only Son, worked in the same field as Beena, which was the direct marketing wing of an advertising agency. No snapshot of the boy was shown but a lunch date was fixed.

Thankfully, no sartorial colour preferences were voiced this time. Maybe Old Baldy was out of town. The night before the date as it were, she walked into the room her visiting grandmother was occupying. Ammini amma was reading `The Da Vinci Code` and looked like she found it extremely interesting. Beena meant to gift her Dan Brown’s `Angels and Demons` next. The old lady looked up, read her granddaughter’s face, put the book down and said in soft, measured tones, “No one will force you to marry this boy or any boy you don’t want to marry, molu.“ They smiled at each other
in perfect understanding.

Lavender blossom. Beena held onto that thought the next day at lunch, for which she wore a fitted outfit in lavender-coloured silk. The `boy` was a mere half kilo away from being obese; he had a florid cast to his fair skin which rapidly reddened as he ordered one G&T after another during the
interminable lunch. He seemed much taken with her and talked non-stop. Everything he said was inane, banal, verging on foolish. Fat, florid and foolish, Beena thought glumly, then hit upon a brilliant idea: she lit up a cigarette. She was a closet smoker but did so in style; she only smoked a certain brand of slim, mint-infused cigarettes. He looked taken aback then scrambled to join her. So
they puffed away all through lunch. Though he did talk through the smoking, too.

This time she said a firm `no` to her family, then told them to take the silence route. Except, the fellow himself called her. And tried to cajole her into marriage. Since the horoscopes matched, very well in dismaying fact and since the other party knew it did, that time- tested excuse,  that  unimaginative refuge of many,  could not be trotted out. So she told him in dulcet tones that her boss was against her marrying someone in the same industry. And put the phone down on a dumbfounded `boy.`

Later she heard they went to town calling her loose and forward. This was before Mutalik or the Ram Sene’s time so she wasn’t branded `pub-going,` too. Small mercies. Her family thought it was just a classic case of sour grapes on the boy’s side and did the royal ignore, something Beena’s family in any case,  excelled in.




Then she turned 24 and Padmini did the turning down job for Beena the next two times. Once when the woman who brought the proposal said they were discreetly asking for a dowry, despite or perhaps knowing the alliance would be with Ammini amma’s family. Everyone in the Melekat clan went stiff with outrage; Beena was amused and when she spoke to her grandmother, Ammini amma sounded amused, too.

The second proposal was ludicrous, since the man who came to check Beena out for his son (Beena wore ivory and looked very becoming) said his son was `modern` and added to everyone’s complete bafflement that he (the boy, that is) generally wore only shorts. That quickly became an in-house joke for Beena, her sister and brother: `shortse idathillu,` they would term any insufferable person.

Time passed and not too smoothly. Pressure mounted on Beena. She was told to think of her unmarried sister. This was difficult for her to do with any amount of seriousness, given that Deepali was a precocious school kid with dollops of attitude, all of it the wrong kind of attitude, too. Just before Deepali was born, Old Baldy had pronounced that the coming baby would, in time,  rule over men and matters. Well, the brat didn’t look to prove that prediction right since she was forever alienating everyone with her high-handed behaviour. Beena had nicknamed her HRH Cooch Behar for her wannabe Gayatri Devi-ness. Only thing though, Deepali was all set to become a real beauty in the Ammini amma mould; the classic stamp that evaded Beena was going to effortlessly become Cooch Behar’s. Beena didn’t mind in the least, she was quite fond of the little pest.

Indigo moods. 25 came and went, to studied under-celebrations. Beena said `no` to one man who lived in Ghatkopar, citing his residential locality as the reason to a fuming Padmini.

Then they went boy-seeing for a change, she wore a lovely shade of indigo, and the fellow came to the door of his apartment clad in only his vest and pyjamas. It was a decidedly grungy vest, too. To add insult to injury, before she could say `no,` he said it. We wouldn’t suit, he said, and it was all Beena could do not to retort, “Well, certainly not if your favourite colour is grungy gray.“

Another chap said he was uncomfortable with her working, riding a scooter to work, wearing Western clothes. It was not clear which of the three he considered most heinous. Beena’s elder brother rolled his eyes and said `no` for her.

It was around this time that Beena started her relationship with the mussanda plant outside the French windows of the dining section of their ground floor apartment. Mealtimes had become a fraught affair with Padmini in full tirade flow, and sometimes even total silence on Beena’s part
wouldn’t cut it. So she learned to stare at the deep pink blooms of the plant with a fixed intensity, like it would impart the secret of life to her.  No secret emerged from the mussanda,  though
Beena frequently developed cricks in her neck. After which she began to develop a decided dislike for any shade of pink be it blush, baby, salmon or fuschia.


She was desperately clinging onto her 26th year, refusing to let it go when Padmini set up a girl-seeing for Beena; her best friend’s son, a dashing blade Beena had heard much about but never met because he lived and worked out of town. The stress levels in the apartment climbed roofwards
as Padmini fixed a date for the family to come home and then set about cleaning, polishing, cooking.

Rarely did her indolent mother ever bother with so much work and Beena worried about the inevitable fallout. After endless rumination, she wore Western gear; these were posh people, Padmini said, her tone bordering on hysteria and Beena didn’t ask further. She knew the boy’s parents very well in any case, they were lovely people, she frequently played a game of Scrabble
with the woman. The mother was a beauty in the Raja Ravi Varma way, lush, fair, friendly. She also had a shtick: she always but always wore brown. It didn’t enhance her flawless complexion any but there it was. Always brown or shades of tan, bitter chocolate, sand, caramel. People were really strange, Beena decided.

Maroon, softly, softly . It was a muggy evening when they were to come home and Padmini insisted Beena wear maroon, a colour which she thought made her look like a recovering alcoholic, one who wasn’t recovering too well at that. Old Baldy was obviously running the gamut of colours and Beena could only devoutly hope his knowledge did not move beyond the primary hues. The boy’s people were to come at 6 pm, they fetched up at 8.30 pm.

He came — or was sent — upstairs to the terrace garden with his sister,  a cool beauty Beena knew well but had never warmed to. He was good-looking in a dark way, charming, witty and turned out to be intelligent, too. He wore a maroon shirt and they laughed a little over the co-incidence. Beena wondered if Old Baldy was the resident oracle of his family too. She began to let her heart hope.

After they left, Padmini was on an euphoric cloud for the rest of that week, planning a grand wedding, calling up her mother twice a day to discuss details. Ammini amma was characteristically, almost repressively, calm and told her daughter the details would keep till something was fixed. Beena on her part, spent the week stewing in a quiet kind of hope. She would go out to the roof
garden, mutilate the deep green serrated leaves of a potted hibiscus or two in an absent manner, replay that evening on an endless loop, send out silent, intense messages over the orange and scarlet blossoms on the gulmohar trees, skimming past the sunlit laburnum, down to the road where he lived. Hope became a motivation of its own. Whenever she passed the large house with its dove gray exteriors and startling pink frosting on its window grills, her heart beat faster. She took to scribbling his name after hers in her diary, even as she laughed at how the act smacked of a teenaged fixation.

They never got back. And when Padmini’s best friend did call, she did not mention the meeting even in passing. In a month’s time, they heard the boy was marrying his long-time girlfriend. Padmini turned on Beena, told her it was her fault she couldn’t catch the most eligible Malayali male in all of Hyderabad. Which was technically wrong since he actually lived in Vancouver.  Beena, poor girl, had to deal with a minor heartbreak of her own alongside her mother’s loudly-voiced disappointment. Her siblings  patted her shoulder awkwardly and tried to calm their seething mother down. All to no avail; this was the perfect opportunity for Padmini to play the `nothing good ever happens in my life`
tune ad nauseum.

What actually got Beena nauseated, though,  was when an aunt who lived in the US came visiting and doled out over- generous and wholly gratuitous doses of advice. Aunt Radha as the family well knew, was a piece of work, a clone of her far-from-pleasant father, Ramanamavan. Years of  relentless cribbing had etched deep lines into her face and given her a permanently sour look. Nothing satisfied aunt Radha, not even her on-the-surface successful marriage, on-the-surface
successful children (one was an attorney, the other a financial analyst), her decidedly luxurious chateau-with-heated pool. Beena couldn’t think of anyone less suited to dole out advice to unmarried kin. But she took it all, nodding her head at all the right times, concentrating on the large mole on the older woman’s left temple; the mole was growing a hair. It did not improve Radhammai’s visage one bit. Beena took some comfort from that.


Roseate haze Time taking its due course, Beena hit her 27th year next. The next girl-seeing session came up almost six months later. The whole khandaan seemed to have arrived, for dinner at that. The father was patrician, soft- spoken. The mother looked like she had eaten something bad for
breakfast a few mornings ago but had yet to recover. The boy was tall, disconcertingly slender (he actually had a wasp waist, Beena noticed) dark-skinned and very quiet.
So she did most of the speaking. Truth be told, all the girl-seeing sessions she had been subjected to had not put Beena off her confidence track. She positively sparkled that evening. It helped that she wore a FabIndia silk kurta the colour of ashes of roses. Or what she imagined Colleen McCullough imagined was ashes of roses, a hue the writer had made much of in `The Thornbirds.` Admittedly, it was a  distant relation to the colour pink but Beena was beginning to get over her anti-pink fixation.

Maybe she sparkled too much. Because they said `no,` the full khandaan. Said the boy wasn’t keen to marry right now. That old chestnut again. So what did that make him, Beena wondered. A serial girl see-er who didn’t want to commit?

At this point in time, Beena occasionally took to standing in front of her mirror, wondering if anything was wrong with the way she looked. The mirror offered neither confidence nor consolation. However, the cut didn’t run deep and she went about her life pretty much as usual. It helped that she had a life in every sense of the word. In that world, she wore a lot of black…ebony,
charcoal, slate, kohl. All she needed, she thought wistfully, was a suitable boyfriend whom she could marry.  Then, for all of 24 hours she contemplated turning lesbian but came to the conclusion that sadly, women just didn’t attract her in that way.


28 and counting. About now, Beena had taken up soft gray as her colour du jour, inspired by the many squirrels who ran tame in the foliage outside the apartment, up branches, down walls, into rooms, out of lofts. Gray with its limited shade chart however, was a colour one tired of fast and she was considering  moving onto eggshell soon. She liked the texture of that colour better than the conventional off-whites, clotted creams or banana beiges. Life slid smoothly past, sometimes all neons, at other times, a blur of tonal hues. She still had all the bloom, the mother-of-pearl sheen of a girl just past her teens.

The next girl-seeing session took place uncomfortably close to Beena’s 30th birthday. Beena’s baby brother, now married and about to become a father, came home. The proposals took a back seat as Amar’s wife Renu delivered of a healthy baby boy. Beena looked down at the mottled and
creased little face and thought, how many girls will this one end up seeing.

Blue  hue. The` boy` was expected home on an evening when Amar and Renu and the baby were at home. Well, not Amar because that evening Beena’s brother chose to head out to a pub down the road for a catch-up session with his college mates. So when the boy came and he came alone, Padmini bustled inside the kitchen, putting together any number of not- very- tasty items to feed him with. And Renu and Beena had to entertain him. Beena wore blue, the colour of lapis lazuli and the colour was most flattering. Even fetching, you might say. Her hair shone like newly polished silk. The little one slept all through the evening; he was so quiet,  they were all able to forgot there was a baby in the house.

The man was tall, dark and handsome, actually so. Slim, well-spoken, he held a good job in London.
What was more, he had a smile that was rakish. In one word, he was amazing. Beena’s heart began to race after what seemed like years. He had a sense of humour too, indulging in easy banter with both the women, expertly keeping up a line of light, meaningless conversation. He was deferential to Padmini, telling her with affectionate wryness of his mother’s ailments, all of them inescapably minor. Padmini laughed a lot that evening, more relaxed than Beena had seen her in a long time. He was perfect and Beena began to be afraid. Very afraid.

She was right to be afraid. The boy got back within 24 hours or rather, his mother did. She said her son had had a pleasant time at their house, had been much taken with the girl. Not Beena though, she conveyed most regretfully. He liked the other one a lot, was it Beena’s sister? Renu, he thought her name was,  though he hadn’t been able to give more details. Could Padmini send Renu’s horoscope over?

All Beena could think of was that Renu had been wearing a lovely shade of green the evening the boy had come over. What had Old Baldy said about the colour green? Pity the little one hadn’t bawled. Pity the `boy` was so dumb, he hadn’t registered who Renu was. Pity….


Beena then embarked on an intense relationship with the blood- red poinsettia next to the mussanda. This one,  she knew for sure, would be for keeps. This one would never fail her.

She had no crystal ball. Or else it would have shown her the future. Her future. It would have shown her a day she wore bronzey-gold, as well as Ammini amma’s finely wrought gold band on her pinkie, the day she met her future husband.


Shortse idathillu: `wears only shorts` in Malayalam.





ColoursfictionKith and Kin by Sheila Kumarshort storyshort story collection

Sheila Kumar • September 7, 2013

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