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Behind Those Red Painted Nails

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The fancy bottle of bright red nail polish was still on that brown oak table on the porch facing the empty cushioned chair. However, the wind had toppled it to its side.  The thick liquid was spilling out of the bottle, like a secret now in the open.

As Sumitra stood staring at this red mess, it all came back to her.   As if she even needed a reminder of  that unfortunate train of events!   It had all started barely a month ago.

She recalled vividly the day when her neighbour Durga had made that tragic announcement.

“Anand has passed away,” she had whispered tearfully into Sumitra’s ear, startling her.  The latter turned around, looking straight into the burning black eyes of Durga. “What?” she asked, staring in disbelief.  “When did this happen?”

“Yesterday,” answered Durga, her voice croaking and hoarse from all her crying.  “He was in hospital after a stroke.   They tried to save him.  Couldn’t!”  She wiped her eyes with the back of her palm.

“My God Durga, this is such a shock.  Such a vibrant man, bursting with life.  Do accept my condolences”.  Sumitra tried to reach for her neighbour’s hand, but the widow pulled back and retreated hastily into her apartment.

Watching Durga shut her door, Sumitra  stood frozen, still aghast at this horrible news.  Even more startling to her was the fact that Anand’s wife had even come up to her and spoken.   The now widow had always so far fiercely avoided conversation, barely considering any kind of  civility even when they ran into each other.   Sumitra recalled this woman’s taut cheeks and snarling presence.   Whenever she even said, “hello,” in the kindest tone, the wife would stamp her foot and turn away.   There was no way to open up any kind of pleasantry.  Sumitra failed to fathom why.

She was struck on the other hand, by the stark picture of Anand, who was exactly the opposite of his wife.  There was a certain serenity and grace in his bearing.   Sumitra found him usually on that  cushioned armchair, a fixture on his porch like a contemplative sage. His silver-grey wispy hair flowed down his oval face like a halo.   With his soft blue eyes blending meditatively with the hues of the changing sky, he always greeted people with joined hands and a namaskar.

On that round oak table in front of him was his usual steaming cup of tea. The aroma of cardamom always warmed this picture.   In his orange or mustard kurta with ‘om’  embroidered on it, he’d be reading a newspaper or some book or other.   When Sumitra went to pick up her letters from her mailbox adjoining his porch, he’d  initiate a conversation.  He could talk his head off on world politics, fiery in his vehemence against corrupt politicians.  He’d end up with his all time favourite subject, religion.  He loved the subject of the great yogi Shiva and his consort, Parvati, and all the temples and pujas graced by these elegant and charismatic deities.   His wife would inevitably also feature in his talk.  “My better half Durga is the human incarnation of goddess Parvati.  She’s feisty and when she’ s angry,God help me, she turns to Kali,” he’d  say rolling his eyes upwards and  ending up in an uproarious long laugh.   Sumitra would join in in that hilarious moment with a playful giggle.

Nonetheless, these encounters were sometimes also disturbing.  She recalled a day when she saw Anand on his porch with a bottle of antiseptic, bandage and medicated ointment.   He was touching up a rather ugly wound on his forearm.  Wincing in pain as he applied ointment to it, he grunted, “I’ll talk to you later.”

Sumitra noticed the deep teeth marks  with dark blue bruises, a huge swelling and blood oozing out of the wound.  Seeing all that  bleeding, she screeched, “Anand, that wound looks horrible.  You need to see a doctor.  How did this happen?”   She couldn’t help walking closer to him in concern.  “Teeth marks?  You were bitten?”

“Ssh!  Please, keep it low or she’ll be mad at me,” he begged, pointing to his window.  “Let’s not tempt the wrath of the infuriated Kali!”

“She bit your arm?” Sumitra asked in horror.

However, Anand did not want to say more, and beckoned her in desperate silence to leave.   A few hours later, when she was outside watering her plants, she could hear  the yelling between him and Durga through their open window.   “You bloody fool!” screamed his wife.  “You imbecile, I curse you to die in hell.”   “Please be calm, don’t be angry Durga,” he was saying in a tearful voice.   Sumitra heard a huge bottle crash to the ground.  The wife continued screaming. That heated conversation went on and on.   Then, Durga slammed her window shut.   Their words were now  muffled.  Yet from the shrill shrieking she heard, Sumitra couldn’t doubt the woman’s toxic anger.  “What a violent woman! What a terrible life for this poor man!” she thought.

After that particular incident and the huge scene in his apartment, she noticed he was not on his porch for a while.    While crossing the street sometimes, she spotted him walking in the opposite direction with his shoulders slouched.   What a lonesome figure he cut to her.  She wished she could offer him a few words of neighbourly sympathy, but sensed that he preferred to be left alone.   He seemed to want time to recover his balance.

Remembering all this even after his death, Sumitra continued to be swept by a sadness.  “With a life like this, what man would have wanted to continue to live on?” she often thought.   She knew it would take time for her to get used to that lonely porch.   Deciding to  collect her letters quietly in future, she knew she had to be careful not to confront or irritate Durga.   Who knew what wrath could suddenly appear from that ball of fire?  She decided to leave the surly widow alone.

Instead to her amazement,  Anand’s widow who had hardly ever made herself visible all these years, started in the subsequent days, to display a series of stark changes of behaviour She was now constantly outside her apartment.   Often in her garden, she carried  a little radio having very lively loud music.   Then, not long after Anand’s  funeral, Sumitra saw her returning home from the market with a bouquet of colourful flowers.  She heard Durga’s voice and bubbly laugh as she chatted with other neighbours.   On one of these days, when the widow’s eyes caught sight of Sumitra, she waved and even cooed affectionately, “Hello, Sumi!  May I call you Sumi?”

Sumitra shrugged  noncommittally  , astonished at this dramatic change in Durga with her new unaccustomed familiarity, barely after Anand’s demise.  Neighbours on the other hand, were still offering their condolences and grieving .

All this continued to escalate rapidly.   Durga would sit now on Anand’s  favourite chair, in a charming yellow or pink salwar kameez.  She looked so vivacious in these bright clothes than in her hitherto  drab pale grey or other nondescript crumpled cotton saris.    Now with her silvery hair dyed black,  she looked twenty years younger.   Finally, the most drastic part of her transformation was those red painted nails!   Sumitra noticed them even from a distance several yards away as she was returning one day from the supermarket.

“Hello!” said Durga, waving at her, showing off her freshly painted bold crimson nails.  Even from this distance, Sumitra felt that the colour of that nail polish oozed in a thick showy stream.

“Good morning, red nails,”  she said, trying not to sound irritated.

“Thanks.  Red has always been my colour.  It has such charm, such vitality,” gushed Durga, softly chuckling.  “It’s probably no coincidence my parents gave me my name.  Goddess Durga has such a vibrancy, she is pure fire.”  She laughed softly again, running her fingers over her shoulders and then, through her hair, where the ruddy fire of her nails made a ridiculous spectacle amidst her newly dyed hair.

Sumitra was honestly more than a little disenchanted with this show of flamboyance and laughter.   She said nothing, but wondered how her neighbour seemed  already so soon way past all the grief of her husband’s tragic death and absence.  It’s as if she was so quickly on to a new happy chapter of her life.

There was something also very alarming about that red that flashed at Sumitra each time she went to her mailbox to collect her letters after that.     Normally, such bold nails might have looked even appealing , but given the circumstances,  such a display looked to Sumitra vulgar and in poor taste.

She was now ready for anything after all this show.  So, it came to her as no surprise when she heard the widow’s loud voice on her cell phone outside on another occasion.  “Come on, don’t tease me,” Durga was saying.   “I cannot promise you anything.   Okay we can meet for dinner.   Thank you for the compliment, I’m flattered.”   Sumitra could only guess what or whom  this neighbour was now onto.  She felt disgusted.

A few days later, she was climbing down her staircase when she heard Durga again.  “Sumitra?” she said, beckoning her with a wave.  “I’m leaving town for a few days.”

“Oh, I see.”

“A mini vacation, Sumi.   I wondered if you could keep an eye on my apartment just to make sure all is well?”

“Of course, not a problem.”

“Here’s a little tip,” said Durga, giving her a little envelope with some cash.

“That’s not necessary.”

“No no, please accept it Sumi, it’s given to you with love.”

Sumitra accepted the tip, but frankly didn’t care for the way Durga poured dreamily over the word ‘love’, as if it had more to to with her new assumed love interest than this little favour she asked for.   The widow left town after this on her trip.  Sumitra went daily to check on the exterior of the apartments, the mailboxes and the porch.   Everything looked in order.

Now, a voice brought all her thoughts back to the present. “Excuse me.”  She realized that she had been staring vacantly at the toppled bottle all this time while  remembering everything that had happened before that. How obscene she felt were its contents sullying  the regal oak table.  “Excuse me”, repeated  the woman beside her again.  “Do you live here?”

“Yes  I live around here.  May I help you?”

She noticed that the young woman in the hoarse voice was in her twenties.  She was in a very low-cut revealing shirt and tight jeans.   Sumitra felt that her thick blue eye shadow and excessive make-up looked  trashy and overdone.   The woman also had on an overpowering cheap musk perfume.

“Do you know these people?” she asked.

“Yes, why?”

“You sound very suspicious!” the woman barked.

“I just wasn’t prepared for these types of questions from people I don’t know.”

“I suppose you knew Anand before he passed away?”

“Yes, very sad and sudden.”

“Have you met Durga?”

“Of course.  They’re my neighbours.  He was a very pleasant and spiritual man.  We’re all very sad that he died.    And I see you know their names and  must have known of them too.”

“Known of them?”   The woman laughed like a wild cat.  “A lot more than that!   That wife of his was a monster.   She could be Kali herself.  Do you know he liked me a lot?  I was his girlfriend.”

“I’m sorry?” asked Sumitra, wondering if she had heard correctly.

“ I live there, down the street,” the woman said, pointing to the corner.  “He visited me often in secret, and told me he loved me.”

“Come on, stop making up stories!” said Sumitra recoiling  and wanting to retreat from this weird woman.  Yet, the latter continued on, “You don’t believe me?  That’s because you’re a fool.  Now don’t make that face, hear what I have to say.”

“What’s the point of all this?” asked Sumitra.

“Please hear me out,” continued the woman. “I too almost fell for his lies.   He told me he was so unhappy with this wife.   You should have seen those tears, those endearing words begging for kindness.”  She rolled her eyes. “I was so trusting and  fell for them.  I thought that awful wife always came in the way of the true love he felt for me.”

“This is getting so ridiculous!” said Sumitra.  “I’ve no time for this”.

Nevertheless,  the persistent woman ignored her words and  looked sharply into her eyes.  “I asked him to divorce her and marry me, but he didn’t even try.  He kept saying “let’s wait” and kept delaying this.   What made it worse was that he cheated on me.   He was fooling around with other women up and down the street, while he made promises to me.”

“Come on.  Stop this nonsense!” yelled Sumitra in vain.

“Well, it was bad enough that he was untrue to me and still continuing with that wife.   Worse was I had to deal with his visitations with all these other women.  Gross!”  She spat on the ground.   “That man that you call saintly was a liar, a womaniser and a conman.   But he got you fooled, right?  That sweet sadhu-like manner, those divine namaskars and talks on God, all a part of his game.   Did he mess with you too?”

“Never! Please don’t say such things.”

“ I pity all the women he played with.   In my case  he messed with the wrong person when he did all this to me!   You never play with Krodha,” the woman said,  hitting her chest with  a clenched fist.   “When I found out what he did, I bit him like a tigress.  I was mad and did not hold back.  You should’ve seen his forearm after I was done with him.   I left bruises and scars to mark his ugly character permanently!”  She gave another raucous laugh and her voice cracked.  “I wanted everybody to see his scar to know what kind of blackguard he was.”

“Wait a minute.  So it was ‘you’ and not Durga, who bit him?” asked Sumitra, now starting to truly hear the story.  How vividly she could still see that wound.

“Yes of course, please!  ‘I’ was the aggrieved one, much more than Durga.  And he got away easily.  I could ‘ve done much more.  He deserved worse.   Do you know he was also involved in all sorts of identity fraud?”   Sumitra shook her head. “You don’t?  Well, ‘I’ knew all about that too.   In his weak moments, he told me everything.  I knew all his secrets, everything about the hidden money.”

“Are you sure all this is true, you might be mistaken or exaggerating?” asked Sumitra, not knowing how to process all this scandalous information.  “This doesn’t sound even in the least like Anand.”

“That’s what made him the worst, his talent for lying and pretense.”

“ It’s wrong to say bad things about the dead when they’re not here to defend themselves.”

“Well, believe what you will.   See this,” said Krodha, patting her protruding belly.   “That’s Anand’s unborn child, by the way.  Doesn’t the baby deserve some inheritance, especially when there’s a good amount? I’ll come back later and deal with that rotten monster of a wife of his.   She’ll have to pay me forever.  Bye.”

Sumitra watched her leave in relief, like a groteque mirage that had fortunately now disappeared.  Her temples throbbed from this outburst  as she continued to wonder.  Was all this that the woman said possibly partly or fully true?   She could tell that that Krodha person looked crazy and unstable.  Besides, what woman would even  claim to have a hostile name like Krodha, that meant anger unless she had some issues? On the other hand, wasn’t it was at least clear that the woman knew and even claimed to be the perpetrator of the wounds on Anand’s forearm?  How could she have even known about the details of the wound or even its existence unless she had done it?    That information now at least strengthened the fact that the bite marks were from Krodha and not from Durga.  The image of Anand taking his sudden mysterious solitary walks also started to make some sense now.   No matter what, Sumitra was thankful to have hope of  slightly better standards of humanity and self-control in the widow.  In that case, who could blame her for having exploded in rage and frustration and cursing her cheating husband?

Her thoughts moved again now to  Durga as she mused again over the latter’s new recent extreme changes.   So much had happened that still didn’t make sense to her.  Certainly Durga glowed now with a new youthfulness and budding of a fresh joy.  It was so obvious, in the colours she chose, her laughter, her new possible love life and the ostentatious red painted nails that displayed it all.  Sumitra hoped that this lady would at least now have a happier life.   How she must have suffered in silence! That probably explained her previous anti-social angry attitude.   Didn’t she deserve to live a life with some colour and glee at least now after all those lost years?   Sumitra looked again at the liquid red coagulated  nail polish .   It now suggested a world of hopeful possibilities as it also discoloured that oak table like a scar never to be erased.








Amita Raj (USA)

Amita Raj holds an MA in English from Clark University, USA. She loves expressing beautiful stories through the colourful magic of words. She has been a contributing writer to Deccan Herald, Indian Express and India Currents Magazine. Aside from writing fiction and poetry, she is also an accomplished singer in both Indian and western classical genres. She has been featured on All India Radio and is also a currently performing opera singer.

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